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Property Tax Resources

Our members actively educate themselves and others in the areas of property taxation and valuation. Many of APTC attorneys get published in the most prestigious publications nationwide, get interviewed as matter experts and participate in panel discussions with other real estate experts. The Article section is a compilation of all their work.

Oct
05

Unjust Property Taxes Amid COVID-19

​Cris K. O'Neall Esq. of Greenberg Traurig LLP discusses why multifamily property taxes are excessive and what taxpayers should do about it.

While COVID-19 has diminished value and property tax liability for all types of real property, it has been especially hard on multifamily housing owners.

State and local shelter-in-place orders that limited business operations have contributed to reduced rental income and vacancies for most commercial property types. In extreme cases, residents have gone out of business or into bankruptcy, eliminating revenues. Many owners have shuttered vacant commercial properties during the pandemic, which at least allowed them to curb spending on utilities and other operating costs.

Few multifamily owners have had that luxury. People still need a place to live, so they continue to occupy their apartments even though they may not be paying rent. As a result, many multifamily operations have lost revenue without reducing occupancy, exacerbating anemic rent collections by compelling landlords to pay operating expenses on fully occupied complexes.

THE PROBLEM: RESIDENTIAL EVICTION MORATORIUMS

In March, COVID-19 prompted the federal government and many states to declare emergencies; counties and cities immediately placed moratoriums on evictions of apartment dwellers for nonpayment of rent. California's experience was typical, with over 150 cities and nearly all metropolitan counties in the Bay Area and Southern California passing eviction moratoriums. Similar restrictions adopted throughout the nation prevented residential landlords from evicting residents for not paying rent.

The specter of millions of apartment dwellers forced from their homes remains very real. With over 45 million renter households in the U.S., the magnitude of potential evictions and the possibility of creating a huge homeless population overnight is staggering.

In August, Stout Risius Ross LLC estimated that 42.5 percent of renter households nationwide were unable to pay their rent and at risk of eviction due to the economic impact of COVID-19. Mississippi showed the highest percentage of renters in distress at 58.2 percent, while Vermont had the lowest at 20.0 percent. Percentages in the major states ranged from the low 30s to 50s.

MORATORIUMS EXTENDED

Many eviction moratorium ordinances either expired by June or were set to expire in early September. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded by issuing an order on Sept. 2 (85 FR 55292) that, prior to Jan. 1, 2021, courts must not evict renters for failure to pay rent. Two days prior to the CDC order, the California Legislature passed an emergency statute (AB 3088) prohibiting nonpayment evictions through March 31, 2021.

California's governor asserted the state's statute takes precedence over the CDC's order. The statute preempts similar county and city ordinances, and the CDC's order states that eviction moratoriums in states that provide greater health-care protections than the CDC calls for are to be applied in lieu of the CDC's order.

The CDC's order and California's new law set renter income thresholds, but only to require greater documentation of need due to COVID-19's effect on a household. In California, the threshold is $100,000 for individuals or 130 percent of the median income in the county.

Renters below these thresholds need only submit a short hardship declaration to their landlord. The CDC's order and California's statute do not absolve residents, who must pay back-rent by Jan. 31, 2021 (CDC), or March 31, 2021 (California). In addition, California requires residents by Jan. 31, 2021, to pay 25 percent of rent owed for September 2020 through January 2021.

EVICTION MORATORIUMS AND PROPERTY TAXES

The National Apartment Association in 2019 estimated 14 cents of every dollar of rent goes to property taxes. Property owners receive 9 cents, while 27 cents pays property operating expenses and 39 cents goes to the property's mortgage.

Obviously, if there is no rent being paid but properties are still being occupied, owners must continue to pay property taxes, operating expenses, and their mortgages (mortgage relief is generally only available, under the CARES Act, to small property owners or owners with government-backed mortgages).

How will these moratoriums affect multifamily property taxes? Whether residents will resume paying rents early next year is far from certain, and back rent may never be paid. These unknowns will affect what multifamily properties' taxable values should be in 2020 and what they will be in 2021.

County assessors generally value multifamily properties using an income approach, starting with gross income netted against operating expenses. Capitalizing that income indicates a value that is the basis for determining the amount of property tax owed. The capitalization rate is based in part on the anticipated risk associated with the property's ownership, or the likelihood the property will continue to generate income.

The difficulty with using the income approach right now is that gross income declined precipitously and remains depressed many months later while operating expenses continue unabated, and there is no assurance back rents will be paid in 2021. The result in many cases is negative net income, which implies negative values and lower property taxes. In addition, capitalization rates are difficult to forecast because no one knows when COVID-19 health restrictions and related eviction moratoriums will be lifted. This uncertainty increases capitalization rates which, in turn, lower property values.

APPEAL ASSESSMENTS NOW

Given the economic challenges confronting renters, any multifamily property is highly likely to have declined in value in the short term, and potentially for the next year or longer. While assessors have promised "to take a hard look" at values in 2021 to see if they should reduce values and lower taxes, whether they will do so remains to be seen.

In view of this, multifamily property owners and managers would do well to appeal their property tax bills this year or during the next available appeal season. This will help ensure tax assessments for this year and future years account for the damage COVID-19 eviction moratoriums have inflicted on multifamily property values.

Cris K. O'Neall is an attorney shareholder in the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP, the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Cris K. O’Neall Esq. of Greenberg Traurig LLP discusses why multifamily property taxes are excessive and what taxpayers should do about it.
Sep
28

How to Fight Excessive Property Taxes During COVID-19

Cash-strapped municipalities may look to extract more revenue from commercial properties.

It would be difficult to conceive of a more impactful event for the commercial real estate market than the coronavirus pandemic. Short of finding a cure for COVID-19, the tremendous state of flux in the sector will test the resourcefulness of commercial property owners and operators for months or years to come.

Market changes always create winners and losers; the more dramatic the shift, the greater the wins and losses. In the current market shakeout, commercial property owners are asking how to best position themselves to land on the winning side. The old standby that "cash is king" is sure to apply as the economic fallout settles, and reducing the real estate tax burden is a great way to conserve capital.

But it won't be easy. Taxpayers who plan to contest high taxable values on their commercial properties face an uphill climb. Here are some common difficulties to expect, along with opportunities to consider in tax appeals.

Valuation date dilemmas. The first problem for many owners who want to reduce their tax burden relates to the timing of the pandemic. Most U.S. communities began feeling the impact of COVID-19 in March or later. However, most jurisdictions had already assessed properties with a fixed valuation date of January 1, 2020. Also, most assessors are unwilling to consider the coronavirus in valuation until January 2021.

Damage provisions. Some jurisdictions have statutory provisions that may apply to properties for the damage done by COVID-19. There is a push to clarify Ohio's statute to recognize the effects of COVID-19, for example. There are similar provisions under consideration in Illinois. Additionally, Pennsylvania has valuation dates that could prove useful for taxpayers. NAIOP and other real estate organizations have supported these actions at various levels. Owners should determine whether they can claim pandemic-related damages in contesting tax bills they are now receiving.

What about next year? Even if a taxpayer cannot pursue a challenge on the current assessment, they can take steps to reduce future assessments. This means meeting with the local assessor to establish a proper assessment before it becomes final.

For taxpayers who choose to follow this advice and address future assessments now, make sure to treat any informal meeting as if it were a hearing. Come prepared — with accurate data demonstrating the impact on property value. Discussing anecdotally that stay-at-home orders and other restrictions affected the property value is insufficient — these circumstances are the reason the taxpayer can begin the conversation, but not the substance of a compelling case for revaluation.

Substantiate arguments. Show the assessor hard numbers demonstrating how COVID-19 or the post-COVID economy affected the specific property. Have social-distancing measures, residential migration or other changes created density challenges? Is there a measurable decline in occupier demand, or a decline in foot traffic and business activity at tenants' businesses? What is the economic feasibility of the tenant base? Whatever the reasons for revisiting the valuation, the property owner should be prepared to show the impact with the same supporting material they would use to pitch the project to investors or lenders. Use facts and figures. Bring in experts. Many taxpayers are fighting for the survival of their investment, and they should act accordingly.

Vet the team. Insist that any outside tax counsel or consultants understand the taxpayer's position. This is not business as usual, so educate advisors about the real estate's value. Work as a member of the team and communicate with its members, from local counsel to the valuation expert, and talk with the individual who will meet with the assessor. Formulate a plan together and then be flexible, allowing people to pivot when they see something changing. If the team understands how to determine assessed value and understands the owner's position, then trust them to make changes in the moment as they see fit.

Anticipate challenges. How can a taxpayer prove what the assessment should be amid so much uncertainty, and with little to no sales evidence to assist in determining value? Always attack the obvious head on. For instance, if the price paid for a recently purchased property is unhelpful, analyze the sale using the same expectations established in due diligence. This may eliminate the sales price as an indicator of market value, allowing the team to then present more beneficial and relevant points. Use the law, use facts and use prior experience where similar facts lined up.

Prepare for resistance. State and local governments are in a tough spot. All over the country, there are budgetary shortfalls at the local level because of the pandemic. Many communities and schools rely on income tax, sales tax and property tax, but in the current environment there is little sales tax revenue, and it appears income tax will take a hit. Property tax is all that is left.

Appeals will not be easy. The team's appraiser must be able to establish a value and defend it. Their testimonial skills, whether in court, at a hearing or informally, are as important or more important than the valuation itself. Also, contact a local expert; market value may not be the only available avenue to a fair and uniform assessment. Owners fortunate to have their commercial properties fairly and uniformly assessed (and not negatively impacted in the pandemic) can perhaps refrain from filing an appeal. In a state where a board or court can raise assessments, an unwarranted appeal may lead to an increase in assessment, although in most states, increased assessment from a tax appeal is rare.

J.Kieran Jennings is a board member of Ohio and Northern Ohio NAIOP and a partner in the Cleveland, Ohio office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co. L.P.A., the Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and Illinois member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property attorneys.
Greg Hart is an attorney in the Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson, PLLC, the Texas member of APTC.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Cash-strapped municipalities may look to extract more revenue from commercial properties.
Sep
01

Intangibles Are Exempt from Property Tax

Numbers of lawsuits remind taxpayers and assessors to exclude intangible assets from taxable real estate value.

A recent case involving a Disney Yacht and Beach Club Resort in Orange County, Florida demonstrates how significantly tax liability can differ when an assessor fails to exclude intangible assets. For Disney's property, the tax assessor's and Disney's valuation of the property differed by a whopping $127.8 billion.

Real estate taxes are ad valorem, or based on the value of the real property. And only on real property.

The precise definition of real property varies by jurisdiction but generally is "the physical land and appurtenances affixed to the land," which is to say the land and any site and building improvements, according The Appraisal of Real Estate, 14th Edition.

Your real property tax assessment, then, should exclude the value of any non-real-estate assets. That includes tangible personal property like equipment, or intangible personal property like goodwill.

When real estate is closely linked to a business operation, such as a hotel, it can be difficult to separate business value from real estate value. If the business activity is subject to sales, payroll, franchise, or other commercial activity taxes, then the assessor's inclusion of business value in the property assessment results in impermissible double taxation.

In Singh vs. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts US Inc., the county assessor appraised the Disney resort using the Rushmore method, which accounts for intangible business value by excluding franchise and management expenses from the calculation of the net income before capitalizing to indicate a property value.

Disney argued the Rushmore method did not adequately separate income from food, beverage, merchandise and services sold on the real estate, not generated by leasing the real estate itself. Disney also argued that the assessor included the value of other intangible assets like goodwill, an assembled workforce, and the Disney brand in the valuation.

The trial court did not rule on the propriety of the Rushmore method but found its application in this case violated Florida law. Referencing an earlier case involving a horse racing track (Metropolitan Dade County vs. Tropical Park Inc.), the court agreed with Disney that "[w]hile a property appraiser can assess value using rental income or income that an owner generates from allowing others to use the real property, the property appraiser cannot assess value using income from the taxpayer's operation of business on the real property."

The trial court decision was appealed to the district court (appeals court). The appeals court found the Rushmore method, not just its application, violated Florida law by failing to remove all intangible business value from the tax assessment. When the case returned to the trial court on another issue, the appeals court instructed that the Rushmore method should not be used to assess the property.

In deciding Disney, both courts found SHC Halfmoon Bay vs. County of San Mateo instructive. That case involved the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay Hotel in California. The California court had rejected the Rushmore method because it "failed to identify and exclude intangible assets" including an assembled workforce, leasehold interest in a parking lot, and contract rights with a golf course operator from the property tax assessment.

The Disney trial court also looked to the Tropical Park horse track case, where the tax assessment improperly included income generated from the business betting operation not the land use.

Similarly, in an Ohio case involving a horse racing facility, the state Supreme Court rejected a tax valuation that included the value of intangible personal property in the form of a video-lottery terminal license (VLT) valued at $50 million by the taxpayer's expert (Harrah's Ohio Acquisition Co. LLC vs. Cuyahoga County Board of Revision). The property had a casino and 128-acre horse racing facility including a racing track, barns, and grandstand.

The Ohio Court recognized that the VLT had significant value that should be excluded from the real property tax assessment. It rejected the argument that the license was not an intangible asset because it could not be separately transferred or retained. Looking at its prior decisions, the Court had recognized a non-transferable license could still be valuable to the current holder of that license, and that value should be exempt from real property taxation.

Experts continue to disagree about the best method to appraise assets with a significant intangible business value component.Nonetheless, these court cases underline again how important it is for your tax assessment to exclude intangible assets. With most commercial property owners facing onerous tax burdens based on pre-COVID-19 valuation dates, it is even more critical that intangible assets are removed from valuations for property tax purposes. Work closely with assessors, knowledgeable appraisers, and tax professionals to ensure you only pay real estate taxes on the value of your real estate.

Cecilia J. Hyun is a partner with Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A. The firm is the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of the American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Cecilia is also a member of CREW Network.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Numbers of lawsuits remind taxpayers and assessors to exclude intangible assets from taxable real estate value.
Jul
09

Expect Increased Property Taxes

Commercial property owners are a tempting target for cash-strapped governments dealing with fallout from COVID-19, writes Morris A. Ellison, a veteran commercial real estate attorney.

Macro impacts of the microscopic COVID-19 virus will subject the property tax system to unprecedented strains, raising the threat that local governments will turn to property tax increases as a panacea for their fiscal woes.

Local governments face formidable financial challenges. One article by Smart Cities Dive suggests that the crisis will blow "massive holes" in municipal budgets, with 96 percent of cities seeing shortfalls due to unanticipated revenue declines. The Washington Post reported that more than 2,100 U.S. cities expect budget shortfalls in 2020, with associated program cuts and staff reductions. The National League of Cities recently estimated that the public sector has lost over 1.5 million jobs since March. Governmental temptation to increase the tax burden on commercial properties will be difficult to resist.

Commercial property owners face similarly unprecedented challenges. Many owners of properties that traditionally served long-term uses for hospitality, retail, office and restaurant activities are now questioning whether those uses will continue. Many properties will need to be repurposed, but to what? Some owners are reportedly considering converting hotels to apartments, for example.

Property taxes are a major component of the costs landlords must examine in determining when and how to reopen. High property taxes, which are generally passed along to commercial tenants, will exacerbate those business' economic problems. While owners can influence some occupancy costs, others, such as taxes and insurance, are largely beyond their control.

RATES, DATES AND VALUES

Real estate taxes reflect both taxation rates and assessed values, but property tax appeals must focus on a property's value. Values hinge on key concepts such as valuation dates, capitalization rates, and highest and best use. The property tax system assumes that values change only gradually, often assessing a property's value by creating a fictitious sale between a willing buyer and seller on a statutorily defined valuation date.

With valuation dates set in the past, assessors tend to value through the rearview mirror. Looking to make a deal, investors, by contrast, look prospectively in deciding whether to buy or sell a property. These viewpoints can clash, particularly when events affecting value occur after the valuation date.

That is why the commercial property owners clamoring for immediate property tax reductions will likely be disappointed, at least until a tax year when their statutorily mandated valuation date postdates COVID-19's onset.

For example, if a taxpayer's bill is based on a fictional sale occurring on Dec. 31, 2019, before the black swan of COVID-19, the assessor is statutorily bound to value the property at its pre-pandemic value.

Some jurisdictions maintain a valuation date for years. That value may change substantially once the valuation date postdates early March 2020, but few state statutes will authorize revaluations based on COVID-19 as a "changed circumstance." A pre-COVID-19 valuation could therefore burden a property for years.

Like the systemic market downturn of 2008, the COVID-19 pandemic will create great uncertainty in capitalization rates, which reflect risk associated with a property's income. This will provide good fodder for argument in tax appeals. The difference this time may be the added uncertainty surrounding the highest and best uses of various commercial properties.

In negotiating a transaction involving income-producing properties, prudent parties analyze future trends. Looking forward, they would interpret weakening tenancy with heightened risk associated with occupancy, rent collections and overall tenant credit-worthiness. They would know that tenants' missed rent payments can lead owners to miss mortgage payments, which can lead to foreclosure.

Contrary to this real-world tendency to look ahead in a transaction, assessors have often assumed a property's highest and best use is its traditional or current use. Trends of working remotely, social distancing, and the rapid, dramatic shift to online retailing turn this assumption on its head.

OBSOLESCENCE ISSUES

Some businesses that closed during the pandemic, including many retailers, may never reopen. Anecdotal evidence of the market shift is manifold. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, analysts were describing the shift to online retail as "apocalyptic" for many brick-and-mortar stores. Seasoned retailers including Neiman Marcus, Pier 1 Imports and J. C. Penney have declared bankruptcy. Many hotels have only been able to meet debt service obligations by tapping heretofore sacrosanct capital reserves, and airline travel has fallen off a cliff. In April, CNBC estimated that 7.5 million small businesses may not reopen. UBS projects that 20 percent of American restaurants might close permanently.

Social distancing rules that reduce restaurants' serving capacity may remain in place indefinitely. Combined with the loss of clientele, such as office workers that no longer work nearby, these conditions could mean closures for low-margin restaurants. Increasing occupancy costs and revenue declines accompanied by increased taxes could tip the balance.

Office values have historically been less volatile than retail property values, but this may change with the move to remote work. Change will be less apparent where many tenants remain subject to long lease terms, but some form of remote working is likely here to stay, and this suggests office tenants may well need less or different space.

Will an office tenant renew its lease? If so, at what rate? And will the tenant downsize? A key indicator of a weakening market is when tenants with long terms remaining on leases sublet space. In a declining market, tax assessors seldom look behind historic income statements to consider these weaknesses, which should be a risk reflected in the capitalization rate.

DON'T DELAY TAX PLANNING

Retail, office, and hospitality property values almost certainly will decline, at least in the short run. For transactional and property-tax purposes, commercial property owners should examine carefully whether the property's "highest and best use" has changed. Local governments that ignore these market changes in an effort to generate short-term tax revenues may exacerbate their long-term revenue problems.

Smart property owners may be able to mitigate the fallout by focusing tax appeals on the concepts of valuation date and highest and best use. They should also note the uncertainty inherent in capitalization rates.

Tax appeals in 2020 may prove especially challenging for cash-strapped commercial taxpayers because statutorily mandated valuation dates likely predate COVID-19. However, the longer-term risk rests with local governments. If they ignore changes in highest and best uses, and if taxing authorities fail to account for the increased risk in capitalization rates, governments may unwittingly increase the pandemic's economic damage.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, S.C., office of the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Commercial property owners are a tempting target for cash-strapped governments dealing with fallout from COVID-19, writes Morris A. Ellison, a veteran commercial real estate attorney.
Jul
08

ATTN OWNERS: BEWARE OF PROPERTY TAX INCREASES DURING COVID-19

What do you need to know to fight excessive increases in Texas this year and next?

As if a global economic contraction and what is most likely an unfolding recession across the United States were not enough, many commercial real estate owners across Texas have seen their taxable property values increase this year. While many of these owners are calling for property tax relief to offset the financial burden they are suffering due to stay-at-home orders and business closures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, they may be unsure of potential remedies to pursue or arguments to make.

Given that the date of valuation is Jan. 1, 2020, property owners searching for relief are limited as to the information that appraisal districts will consider for this tax year. Potentially limited relief in 2020 does not mean taxpayers lack options, however.

There are three key strategies that commercial property owners need to implement in 2020 if they want to maximize reductions in taxable value for this and future years.

1. Consider filing a 2020 appeal – even if the taxable value did not increase from the prior year. The state was already shutting down non-essential activities as appraisal districts were preparing to mail out their 2020 Notices of Appraised Value. Most appraisal districts delayed the mailings while exploring various options, including freezing property values and granting temporary exemptions for properties affected.

In the end, most appraisal districts conducted reappraisals as originally planned and the Texas Attorney General shot down the idea of temporary exemptions as, in his view, the statutory authority allowing issuance of exemptions did not cover purely economic, nonphysical damage to property. The result of this was that, in the majority of cases, the values sent out had no consideration for losses due to the pandemic.

A taxable value that did not increase year over year in an up market may not warrant an appeal during ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. In 2020, such appeals are important to taxpayers for several reasons.

First, the focus on the pandemic has shifted the narrative that dominated the news cycle in the months in and around the date of valuation. Does anyone remember the retail apocalypse? According to Business Insider, over 9,300 stores closed in 2019 and thousands more were slated for closure in 2020. This was all before COVID-19. If your property was affected by this or other economic factors, a freeze in value may not appropriately reflect the market value of the asset.

Secondly, appealing now may be a sound decision because the 2020 value may be used as a benchmark for future relief. In Texas, each year stands on its own and is valued independently of prior years. However, given that the effects of the pandemic are unlike anything we have seen before, it is reasonable to predict that in order to track the decline in value, appraisal districts may look to the 2020 appraisal roll as a starting point.

In Texas, the deadline to appeal property tax values is May 15, or 30 days from the date the Notice of Appraised Value was delivered to the property owner. Given that some jurisdictions delayed their mailings, it is important to review your Notice of Value to determine your deadline to appeal.

2. Consider the tax rate as well as taxable value. It is important to remember that a value freeze without a freeze in tax rates may still result in an increase in taxes. While actions taken by the Texas Legislature in 2019 promised relief by addressing tax rates, even those measures are currently up for debate as local districts are questioning whether the pandemic allows them to exceed the revenue-raising limits put in place by the Legislature.

Texas may not resolve this dispute until it assesses the full extent of economic damage and weighs it against the needs of the taxing units to meet their budgets. The appeals process will still be the first avenue for relief, but a very close second will be to lobby the local taxing jurisdictions to not raise, and perhaps even lower, property tax rates.

3. Keep track and provide documentation of COVID-19 losses. Even though COVID-19 losses may not be fully considered for tax year 2020, taxpayers need to initiate conversations about the economic impact to the property's financials so that appraisal districts can start building the valuation models for 2021 with these factors in mind.

In 2021, property owners should be ready to present documentation demonstrating any declines in occupancy or revenue, as well as any bankruptcies affecting the property. If the taxpayer's current record keeping does not reflect slow-paying or non-paying tenants, consider tracking those items. Changes to business models, such as adding patio seating or curbside pick-up lanes, may also affect the ultimate indication of value for 2021, so keeping track of those expenses will be equally important.

As property owners go through the 2020 appeals process, it may be beneficial to consider keeping the option open to file a lawsuit in district court to seek additional relief. The longer the property owner and its advisors have to gather information and calculate the depth of the economic impact, the better positioned the team will be to obtain a fair 2020 value.

In the end, being proactive during these times is essential to obtaining relief where it appears there may be no relief in sight.

Darlene Sullivan is a Principal in Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which represents taxpayers in property tax matters. The firm is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • What do you need to know to fight excessive increases in Texas this year and next?
Jun
09

Navigating D.C.’s Tax Rate Maze

An evolving and imperfect system has increased property taxes for many commercial real estate owners.

If you own or manage real property in the District of Columbia and are wondering why your real estate tax bill has gone up in recent years, you are not alone. One common culprit is rising assessed value, but that may not be the main or only source of an increase.

A less obvious contributor may be a new, different, or incorrect tax rate. Since tax rates vary greatly depending on a property's use, staying diligent when it comes to your real estate's tax class and billed rate is critical.

The District of Columbia applies differing tax rates to residential, commercial, mixed-use, vacant and blighted properties. Why is this important? Because the classification can make a considerable difference in annual tax liability – even for two properties with identical assessment values.

For example, a multifamily complex assessed at $20 million incurs a tax liability of $170,000 per year while the same property, if designated as blighted, incurs an annual tax liability almost twelve times greater at $2 million. Therefore, the assessed value is just one piece of the puzzle.

Keeping a sharp eye on a property's tax bill for the accuracy of any tax rate changes is paramount. This requires knowledge of current rates, the taxpayers' legal obligations, and how to remedy or appeal any issues that arise.

New Rates for Commercial Property

Property owners in the District should be aware of a recent change to tax rates on commercial real estate. The Fiscal 2019 Budget Support Emergency Act increased rates for commercial properties starting with Tax Year 2019 bills.

Prior to the enactment of this legislation, the District taxed commercial properties with a blended rate of 1.65% for the first $3 million in assessed value and 1.85% for every dollar above $3 million. The new measure replaces the blended rate with a tiered system, taxing a commercial property at the rate corresponding to the level in which its assessed value falls. Those levels are:

Tier One, for properties assessed at $0 to $5 million, taxed entirely at 1.65%;

Tier Two, for properties assessed at $5 million to $10 million, taxed entirely at 1.77%; and

Tier Three, for properties assessed above $10 million, taxed entirely at 1.89%.

The residential tax rate for multifamily properties remained flat at 0.85%.

Mixed Use

The District of Columbia Code requires that real property be classified and taxed based upon use. Therefore, if a property has multiple uses, taxing entities must apply tax rates proportionally to the square footage of each use. However, it is ownership's legal obligation to annually report the property's uses by filing a Declaration of Mixed-Use form. Owners of properties with both residential and commercial portions should be hypersensitive to this issue.

The District typically mails the Declaration of Mixed-Use form to property owners in May, and the response is due 30 days thereafter. If the District fails to send a form to an owner, it is the owner's responsibility to request one. Remember, the owner must recertify the mixed-use asset each year. Failure to declare a property as mixed-use may result in the entire property including the residential portion being taxed at the commercial tax rate (up to 1.89%).

Vacant & Blighted Designation

If you have ever opened a property tax bill and faced a staggering 5% or 10% tax rate, congratulations, your property was taxed at one of the District's highest real estate tax rates.

Each year the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and the Office of Tax and Revenue are charged with identifying and taxing vacant and blighted properties in the District. The D.C. Code defines vacant and blighted properties for this purpose, and there is a detailed process governing why and when DCRA may classify a property as vacant. Nonetheless, in each tax cycle DCRA wrongfully designates properties as vacant or blighted, so it is paramount that the taxpayer understands their appeal rights.

To successfully appeal a vacant property designation, an owner must comply with one of the specifically enumerated and highly technical exemptions. One such exemption applies if the property is actively undergoing renovation under a valid building permit. However, the taxpayer should consult with an attorney, as there may be other requirements to qualify for an exemption. An owner wishing to appeal this designation must file a Vacant Building Response form and provide all applicable supporting documentation to DCRA.

Moreover, an owner may appeal a property's blighted designation by demonstrating that the property is occupied or that it is not blighted. Since an appeal of a blighted designation requires a more detailed review of the condition of the property itself, photographic evidence must be used to supplement any documentation provided.

Fixing Erroneous Rates

When dealing with local government and statutory deadlines, time is not on the taxpayer's side. It is important that as soon as an error is identified, the property owner understands the next steps. In some situations, the D.C. code or official government correspondence will lay out the process precisely for the property owner, identifying the who, what, where, when, why and how's of appealing a property's tax designation. However, sometimes a taxpayer will receive a bill without explanation.

In both scenarios, it is best to consult with a local tax attorney.  These professionals have experience dealing with these issues, as well as with the corresponding governmental entities.  A knowledgeable counselor can be an invaluable resource to guide you through any tax issue.

Sydney Bardouil is an associate at the law firm of Wilkes Artis, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • An evolving and imperfect system has increased property taxes for many commercial real estate owners.
May
04

Texas' Taxing Times

​How changes to the Texas property tax law may impact you, and how COVID-19 plays a role this season.

Property taxes are big news in Texas. Last year, property taxes were a primary focus of the 86th Legislature, and Gov. Greg Abbott deemed property tax relief so important that he declared it an emergency item.

The 2019 legislative session produced significant modifications to tax law. Here's a rundown on the most noteworthy changes affecting taxpayers in 2020, along with a look at how fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic may complicate the taxpayer's position.

Removing the Veil

Property taxes are not only big news, but they are also confusing, particularly given the "Texas two-step" appraisal and assessment process. After an appraisal district values a property, taxing entities separately tax that property based upon the final determined value. For a single property, a taxpayer may owe five or more taxing entities spread among three assessors' offices. Understanding the ultimate tax liability for such a property can be a monumental task for taxpayers.

Senate Bill 2 addressed the confusion and promoted transparency and truth in taxation, earning it the title of "The Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act of 2019." Each appraisal district is now required to maintain a website with useful information that allows taxpayers to better understand their tax bills. The website must include the three pertinent tax rates summarized in the table below (the names of which Senate Bill 2 also revised for clarity). Additionally, appraisal districts will calculate the effect that each taxing entity's proposed rate would have on its overall tax collection and include an estimate for any proposed increase's effect on a $100,000 home. Finally, the websites must provide the date and location of public hearings to address concerns with any proposed increases.

 Revenue Increase Limits

In addition to transparency, lawmakers fought to create some avenue of property tax relief. What ultimately passed between Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 3 was a limit on tax revenue increases by jurisdiction. This restricts the amount that taxing entities can increase revenues through tax rate setting.

Beginning in 2020, most taxing entities will have a maximum revenue increase limit of 3.5% year over year. To adopt a tax rate that increases revenue over 3.5%, that taxing entity must call an election for approval. This new cap is significantly lower than the prior law, which allowed for up to an 8% increase in tax rates year over year without voter approval. Junior college districts, hospital districts and other small taxing units including those with tax rates of 2.5 cents or less per $100 of valuation retain their 8% permitted increase. (For clarity, this article expresses tax rates in dollars per $100 of assessed value.)

Relief from school district taxation falls under a separate calculation, which was revised by House Bill 3. For the 2019-2020 school year, maintenance and operations (M&O) rates will be compressed by 7%. For school districts with a Tier 1 $1.00 M&O rate, the rate drops by 7 cents to 93 cents on the dollar.

For 2020-2021, local school district rates will compress by an average of 13 cents, based on statewide property value growth exceeding 2.5%. The M&O rate caps will vary across school districts, and the Texas Education Agency will publish all maximum compressed rates.

Other Relevant Procedures and Policies

While tax system demystification and revenue increase limits were the major reforms, lawmakers enacted many administrative and procedural changes as well. Administrative process changes now prohibit value increases at an Appraisal Review Board (ARB) hearing, add ARB member training requirements, and create special ARB panels to hear protests for complex properties. Additionally, the business personal property rendition date moved to April 15.

In a win for those litigating appraised values, the state revised Section 42.08 of the property tax code, allowing a taxpayer to pay less than the full amount of tax on a property with pending litigation. Previously, if the final property value from a lawsuit resulted in a tax burden exceeding the amount originally paid, the taxpayer incurred delinquent penalties and interest on the remaining amount owed. The revision removes the taxpayer's risk for attempting to discern where a litigated value may settle by eliminating the possibility of penalties and interest on the additional tax due.

Uncertain Times

Despite changes enacted in the 2019 Legislative Session, at least some of those reforms are on hold as the state and its communities respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Abbott's Mar. 13 disaster declaration allows cities, counties and special districts to use the old 8% threshold on revenue increases rather than the new 3.5% limit.

Further, the governor has the authority to change deadlines during a disaster. As of Mar. 19, Texas had suspended in-person Appraisal Review Board hearings and may extend that suspension into the normal administrative protest season.

Rapid developments may continue to disrupt the property tax assessment and appeal process in 2020. How the disaster will ultimately affect the 2020 property tax cycle remains to be seen, but the recent changes enacted in law will shape the property tax process in Texas for years to come.

For more detailed information on property tax law changes, please refer to the 2019 Texas Property Tax Code, additional resources on the Texas Comptroller's webpage, and consult with a property tax professional.

Rachel Duck, CMI, is a Director and Senior Property Tax Consultant at the Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. Popp Hutcheson devotes its practice to the representation of taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • How changes to the Texas property tax law may impact you, and how COVID-19 plays a role this season.
Apr
17

Higher Property Tax Values in Ohio

The Buckeye State's questionable methods deliver alarmingly high values.

A recent decision from an Ohio appeals court highlights a developing and troubling pattern in the state's property tax valuation appeals. In a number of cases, an appraiser's misuse of the highest and best use concept has led to extreme overvaluations. Given its potential to grossly inflate tax liabilities, property owners and well-known tenants need to be aware of this alarming trend and how to best respond.

In the recently decided case, a property used as a McDonald's restaurant in Northeast Ohio received widely varied appraisals. The county assessor, in the ordinary course of setting values, assessed the value at $1.3 million. Then a Member of the Appraisal Institute (MAI) appraiser hired by the property owner calculated a value of $715,000. Another MAI appraiser, this one hired by the county assessor, set the value at $1.9 million. The average of the two MAI appraisals equals $1.3 million, closely mirroring the county's initial value.

Despite the property owner having met its burden of proof at the first hearing level, the county board of revision rejected the property owner's evidence without analysis or explanation. The owner then appealed to the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals (BTA).

In its decision on the appeal, the BTA focused on each appraiser's high-est and best use analysis. The county's appraiser determined the highest and best use is the existing improvements occupied by a national fast food restaurant as they contribute beyond the value of the site "as if vacant." The property owner's appraiser determined the highest and best use for the property in its current state was as a restaurant.

With the county appraiser's narrowly defined highest and best use, the county's sale and rent examples of comparable properties focused heavily on nationally branded fast food restaurants (i.e. Burger King, Arby's, KFC and Taco Bell). The BTA determined that the county's appraisal evidence was more credible because it considered the county's comparables more closely matched the subject property.

By analyzing primarily national brands, the county's appraiser concluded a $1.9 million value. Finding the use of the national fast food comparable data convincing, the BTA increased the assessment from the county's initial $1.3 million to the county appraiser's $1.9 million conclusion.

On appeal from the BTA, the Ninth District Court of Appeals deferred to the BTA's finding that the county's appraiser was more credible, noting "the determination of [the credibility of evidence and witnesses]…is primarily within the province of the taxing authorities."

Questionable comparables

Standard appraisal practices demand that an appraiser's conclusion to such a narrow highest and best use must be supported with well-researched data and careful analysis. Comparable data using leased-fee or lease-encumbered sales provides no credible evidence of the use for which similar real property is being acquired. Similarly, build-to-suit leases used as comparable rentals provide no evidence of the use for which a property available for lease on a competitive and open market will be used. However, this is exactly the type of data and research the county's appraiser relied upon.

A complete and accurate analysis of highest and best use requires "[a] n understanding of market behavior developed through market analysis," according to the Appraisal Institute's industry standard, The Appraisal of Real Estate, 14th Edition. The Appraisal Institute defines highest and best use as "the reasonably probable use of property that results in the highest value."

By contrast, the Appraisal Institute states the "most profitable use" relates to investment value, which differs from market value. The Appraisal of Real Estate defines investment value as "the value of a certain property to a particular investor given the investor's investment criteria."

In the McDonald's case, however, the county appraiser's highest and best use analysis lacks any analysis of what it would cost a national fast food chain to build a new restaurant, nor does it acknowledge that the costs of remodeling the existing improvements need to be considered.

If real estate is to be valued fairly and uniformly as Ohio law requires, then boards of revision, the BTA and appellate courts must take seriously the open market value concept clarified for Ohio in a pivotal 1964 case, State ex rel. Park Invest. Co. v. Bd. of Tax Appeals. In that case, the court held that "the value or true value in money of any property is the amount for which that property would sell on the open market by a willing seller to a willing buyer. In essence, the value of property is the amount of money for which it may be exchanged, i.e., the sales price."

Taxpayers beware

This McDonald's case is not the only instance where an overly narrow and unsupported highest and best use appraisal analysis resulted in an over-valuation. To defend against these narrow highest and best use appraisals, the property owner must employ an effective defense strategy. That strategy includes the critical step of a thorough cross examination of the opposing appraiser's report and analysis.

In addition, the property owner should anticipate this type of evidence coming from the other side. The property owner's appraiser must make the effort to provide a comprehensive market analysis and a thorough highest and best use analysis to identify the truly most probable user of the real property.

Steve Nowak, Esq. is an associate in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • The Buckeye State’s questionable methods deliver alarmingly high values.
Apr
16

Property Tax Crush Demands Action

Without steps by government officials, coronavirus-related property devaluations won't be taken into consideration, warns veteran tax lawyer Jerome Wallach.

U.S. businesses and lawmakers face an array of challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking ahead, let's add one more legislative task to that list which, if addressed early, will better enable the economy to bounce back from the current disruption: Provide tax relief for the owners and tenants of commercial properties devalued by vacancy stemming from the virus and efforts to slow its spread.

One of the only tools available to federal, state and community leaders seeking to slow the spread of the disease has been to limit opportunities for person-to-person transmission. Ever-tightening restrictions, either voluntary or enforced, limit or halt the use of commercial properties ranging from restaurants, bars and hotels to call centers, office buildings, stores, entertainment venues and other structures.

While necessary, these measures will drive growing numbers of tenants into distress up to and including closing their doors, defaulting on lease payments or both. Near term, this will slash property income streams and reduce property owners' ability to pay expenses including property tax on partially or fully vacated properties. Longer term, companies struggling to regain their footing and new tenants moving into spaces vacated during the crisis can expect much of their monthly occupancy costs to include a weighty property tax burden based on assessments completed when real estate values were near all-time highs.

Widespread devaluations likely

Even before President Trump declared a national emergency related to the coronavirus on March 13, researchers were tracking widespread commercial real estate devaluations as reflected in REIT performance. The day before the emergency declaration, economists at the UCLA Anderson School of Management concluded that the U.S. had already entered into a recession. The following Tuesday, March 16, news reports of a Green Street Advisors presentation conveyed that the performance of REITs and drop in share prices suggested investors had marked down asset values, on average, by 24% over the course of the previous month. According to news coverage, a Green Street presenter predicted that private market real estate values would decline by another 5% to 10% over the next six months.

Such a rapid decline in property income and market value creates worrisome property tax implications for taxpayers in most jurisdictions. In months to come, when landlords and tenants may anticipate struggling to recover from the pandemic in a flat or recessionary economic environment, they can also expect to receive property tax bills (or tax liability passed through and attached to their lease obligation) based on pre-crisis property values. In many cases, those assessed values will far exceed current fair market value.

Assessors in the jurisdiction in which this writer practices value real property for ad valorem tax purposes as of the first year in a two-year cycle. This means that, for most local owners, property tax bills they receive this year and last year both reflect their property's fair market value as of Jan. 1, 2019. The time to appeal the 2019 value as set by the assessor has long since run out. Short of an intervening event such as a fire or tornado damage, or perhaps construction or addition of a building or other physical improvement, the Jan. 1, 2019, base value is effectively carved in stone and is no longer subject to legal review or modification.

In those jurisdictions where the value may be determined later, it is most typically set on Jan. 1 of the current year. Even if time remains to contest those values, however, most tax statutes would treat any change in value occurring after the effective valuation date to be irrelevant to tax bills based on that valuation date.

Appeal to lawmakers

COVID-19's impact on property values will be profound if not catastrophic. It would seem to be a callous response for a government official to say, in effect, "So what? The assessor followed the law and valued your property before the pandemic."

A storied law professor used to tell his students, this writer among them, that "there is no wrong without a remedy." Paying taxes based on a value that no longer exists is a wrong, yet there seems to be no immediate remedy.

Indeed, few tax codes will provide taxpayers with relief from the unfair burden they face in the wake of this sudden, global crisis. Remedy will require educating lawmakers and the public about this pending tax dilemma.

Phone calls, letters, texts and emails to government officials at any level may help. Perhaps, together, we will find a solution that balances government revenue requirements with current property values.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Without steps by government officials, coronavirus-related property devaluations won’t be taken into consideration, warns veteran tax lawyer Jerome Wallach.
Apr
15

Property Tax Planning Delivers Big Savings

Ask the right questions, understand your rights and develop a strategy to avoid costly mistakes.

When it comes to property taxes, what you don't know can hurt you. Whether it is failing to meet a valuation protest deadline, ignorance of available exemptions or perhaps missing an error in the assessment records, an oversight can cost a taxpayer dearly. Understanding common mistakes — and consulting with local property tax professionals — can help owners avoid the pain of unnecessarily high property tax bills.

Think ahead on taxes

Many owners ignore property taxes until a valuation notice or tax bill arrives, but paying attention to tax considerations at other times can greatly benefit a taxpayer. For example, it's good practice to ask the following questions before purchasing real estate, starting a project or receiving a tax bill:

Does the property qualify for exemptions or incentives? Every state offers some form of property tax exemptions to specific taxpayers and property types. Examples include those for residential home-steads, charitable activities by some nonprofits and exemptions for pollution control equipment. Similarly, governments use partial or full property tax abatements in their incentive programs for enticing businesses to expand or relocate to their communities. While many of these programs are industry-specific, it is important to consider all of the taxpayer's potential resources and the costs and benefits of pursuing each.

In most cases, a taxpayer must claim an exemption or obtain an abatement in order to receive its benefits. Failing to timely do so may lead to the forfeiture of an applicable exemption. If the taxpayer becomes aware after the deadline that it may have qualified for an exemption, it is still prudent to speak with a local professional.

Once the exemption is in place, review the assessment each year to ensure it is properly applied. Additionally, taxpayers and their representatives should closely follow legislative action affecting the exemptions that may be available.

How will a sale or redevelopment affect the property's tax value? For instance, will the sale trigger a mandatory reassessment or perhaps remove a statutory value cap? If a change in use removes an exemption, will it trigger rollback taxes or liability equal to the amount of taxes previously excused under the exemption? Will the benefit of an existing exemption be lost for the following tax year?

Taxpayers that fail to ask these questions risk underestimating their tax bill, which can quickly under-mine an initial valuation analysis and actual return.

Learn whether the purchaser or developer must disclose the sales price or loan amount on the deed or other recorded instruments. If so, avoid overstating the sales price by including personal property, intangible assets or other deductible, non-real estate items. Assessors often use deed and mortgage records in determining or supporting assessed value, and it can be an uphill battle trying to argue later why a disclosed sales figure is not the real purchase price.

Don't assume, without further inquiry, that the tax value will stay unchanged following a sale; nor that it will automatically increase or decrease to the purchase price. In determining market value, the assessor may consider (or disregard) the sale in a variety of ways depending on the jurisdiction, transaction timing, arm's-length condition and other factors.

Perhaps the assessor will change the cost approach assumptions to chase a higher purchase price, or disregard a lower sales price suspected of being a distressed transaction. A local, knowledgeable adviser can help the taxpayer set reasonable expectations for future assessments following a sale or redevelopment.

Plan to review, challenge

Before the valuation notice or tax bill arrives, make a plan to review it and challenge any incorrect assessments within the time allowed. An advocate who thoroughly under-stands local assessment methodologies and appeal procedures can be invaluable in helping to craft and execute a response strategy.

The first hurdle in any property tax protest is learning the applicable deadlines. This can be more difficult than it appears, as local laws don't always require a valuation notice. For instance, some states omit sending notices if the value did not increase from the prior year. Additionally, many states reassess on a less-than-annual basis, although there may be different periods within the reassessment cycle in which appeals can be filed.

It is critical to understand the reassessment cycle and protest periods in every jurisdiction in which a taxpayer owns property. Missing a deadline or required tax payment can result in the dismissal of a valuation appeal, regardless of its merits.

The owner, or the company's agent, should understand not only appraisal methodology but also legal requirements governing the assessor. Is there a state-prescribed manual that dictates the application of the cost approach? Does the assessor use a market income approach to value certain property types?

In some jurisdictions, assessors reject the income approach to value if the owner fails to submit income in-formation by a specific date. In others, submitting income information may be mandatory.

With mass appraisal, assessors often make mistakes that will go undetected if not discovered by the taxpayer's team. Has the assessor's cost approach used the correct build-ing or industry classification, effective age of improvements, square footage, type of materials, number of plumbing fixtures, ceiling height, type of HVAC system, etc.?

Even one small error could skew the final value and should be timely brought to the assessor's attention, whether or not in a formal protest setting.

In addition to correcting the error for future assessments, the owner should determine whether it is entitled to a refund for previous taxes paid and, if so, timely file any refund petitions.

With countless jurisdictions and varying assessment statutes, it is unreasonable to expect a property owner to master property tax law. Yet with proper planning and local advisors, taxpayers can avoid pitfalls they may have otherwise overlooked.

Aaron Vansant is a partner at DonovanFingar LLC, the Alabama member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.

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  • Ask the right questions, understand your rights and develop a strategy to avoid costly mistakes.
Mar
09

The Terrible T’s of Inventory: Timing and Taxes

​States that impose inventory taxes put their constituent businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Inventory taxes pose an additional cost of doing business in more than a dozen states, and despite efforts to mitigate the competitive disadvantage the practice creates for many taxpayers, policymakers have yet to propose an equitable fix.

Virtually all states employ a property tax at the state or local level. The most common target is real property, which is land and land improvements; and tangible personal property such as fixtures, machinery and equipment.

Nine states also tax business inventory. Those are Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas,Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Vermont. Another four states – Alaska, Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts – partially tax inventory. In these 13 states, inventory tax contributes a significant portion of overall property tax collections.

From a policy standpoint, however, inventory tax is probably the least defensible form of property tax: It is the least transparent of business taxes; is "non-neutral," as businesses with larger inventories, such as retailers and manufacturers, pay more; and it adds insult to injury for businesses whose inventory is out of sync with finicky consumer buying habits.

A few fixes

Taxpayers have had few options in attempting to reduce inventory tax liability because an inventory's valuation is seldom easily disputed. So, modeling a classic game of cat and mouse, some enterprising businesses would move their inventory to the jurisdiction with the lowest millage, frantically shuttling property about before the lien date. Taxing jurisdictions eventually caught on, however, and many of these states adopted an averaging system whereby taxpayers must report monthly inventory values that are then averaged for the year. So much for gaming the timing of taxes.

The underlying problem is that imposing an inventory tax puts that state's businesses at a competitive disadvantage. At the same time, local jurisdictions cannot easily afford to give up the revenue generated by inventory taxes.

When West Virginia was contemplating phasing out its inventory tax, one state legislator pointed out that the proposal placed elected representatives in the predicament of telling educator constituents the state could not afford to pay them sufficiently, while turning to another group of business constituents and relieving them of a tax burden which would create a hole in the state's revenues.

Some states including Louisiana and Kentucky have implemented creative workarounds, such as giving income or corporate franchise tax credits to businesses to offset their inventory tax liability. But these imperfect fixes add uncertainty and unnecessary complexity to a state's tax code.

For instance, when Louisiana implemented a straightforward inventory tax credit in the 1990s, businesses paid local inventory tax and were reimbursed for the payments through a tax credit for their Louisiana corporation income/franchise tax liability. The state Department of Revenue fully refunded any excess tax credit.

Between 2005 and 2015, however, the state's liability more than doubled. In 2015, the Legislature imposed a $10,000 cap on the refundable amount of an inventory tax credit and allowed any unused portion of an excess tax credit to be carried forward for a period not to exceed five years. Then in 2016, lawmakers increased the fully refundable cap to $500,000 and adjusted how the excess tax credit could be taken, but left the carry-forward period unchanged. This has created another inventory tax timing problem: Businesses now lose any unclaimed excess tax credit at the end of that carry-forward period, and businesses have no assurances that the tax credit amounts won't be lowered or otherwise made less user-friendly the next time the state faces a fiscal crunch.

Kentucky recently implemented its own inventory tax credit system. Even less taxpayer friendly than Louisiana's approach, it provides only a nonrefundable and nontransferable credit against individual income tax, corporation income tax and limited liability entity tax. The state is phasing in the tax credit in 25% increments each year until it is fully claimable in 2021.

Texas has taken a different tack by offering businesses a limited, $500 exemption for inventory tax. Unadjusted for inflation since its implementation in 1997, however, the exemption for business personal property has lost relative value as the cost of living has increased. The Texas Taxpayers and Research Association recently evaluated Texas' inventory tax and found that the $500 exemption in today's dollars is equivalent to only $367 in 1997 dollars. The association further noted that a property valued at $500 generates, on average, a tax bill of $13, which is less than the likely cost of administering the tax. Not surprisingly and quite rightly, the association recommended increasing the amount of the exemption.

Clearly, these workarounds are not really working for this problem. What's the best solution for Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas and the rest of the inventory tax states? Join the rest of the crowd and simply abolish the inventory tax, as a task force created by the Louisiana Legislature recommended in 2016. No more cat and mouse games, no more paltry exemptions and no more convoluted tax credits. At least in this regard, businesses in all states would be on the same competitive footing.

Angela Adolph is a partner in the law firm of Kean Miller LLP, the Louisiana member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • States that impose inventory taxes put their constituent businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
Feb
03

Why Assessor Estimates Create Ambiguity

Kieran Jennings of Siegel Jennings Co. explains how taxpayers and assessors ensure a fair system, with tremendous swings in assessment and taxes.

A fundamental problem plaguing the property tax system is its reliance on the government's opinion of a property's taxable value. Taxes on income or retail sales reflect hard numbers; real estate assessment produces the only tax in which the government guesses at a fair amount for the taxpayer to pay.

Assessors' estimates of taxable property value create ambiguity and public scrutiny not found in other taxes, and incorrect assessments can lead to fiscal shortfalls that viciously pit taxing authorities against taxpayers seeking to correct those valuations. Worse yet, the longer a tax appeal takes to reach its conclusion, the worse the outcome for both the taxpayer and government. Paradoxically, swift correction of assessment roll protects the tax authority as well as the taxpayer.

As an example, Utah daily newspaper Desert News reported in December 2019 that, due to a clerical error, Wasatch County tax rolls recorded a market-rate value of $987 million for a 1,570-square-foot home built in 1978. The value should have been $302,000. The Wasatch County assessor said the error caused a countywide overvaluation of more than $6 million and created a deficit in five various county taxing jurisdictions, according to the county assessor. The Wasatch County School District had already budgeted nearly $4.4 million, which it was unable to collect.

How does an overvaluation error cause taxing districts to lose money? In many, if not most jurisdictions, the tax rate is determined in part by the overall assessment in the district as well as the budget and levies passed. Typically, there is a somewhat complex formula that turns on the various taxing districts, safeguards and anti-windfall provisions.

Simply stated, tax rates are a result of the budget divided by the overall assessment in the district. A $1 million budget based on a $100 million assessment would require a 1 percent tax rate to collect the budgeted revenue. If the assessment is corrected after the tax rate is set, however, then not all the revenue will be collected and the district will incur a fiscal shortfall.

The sooner a commercial property assessment is corrected the healthier it is for all involved. In the Utah example, had the error been corrected prior to the tax rate being set there would have been no impact on the taxpayer, the school or any of the taxing authorities.

FAIRNESS FOR THE COMMON GOOD

Most state tax systems are flawed and provide inadequate safeguards for taxpayers—if the tax systems were designed better, there would be less need for tax counsel. By understanding the workings of the property tax system, however, taxpayers can help maintain their own fiscal health as well as help to maintain the community's fiscal well being.

As with all negotiations, it is important to understand the opponent's motivations. Although residential tax assessment typically is the largest pool of overall assessment, taxing authorities know that commercial properties individually can have the greatest impact on a system when they are improperly assessed, to the detriment of schools and taxpayers. That makes it important to act as quickly as possible in the event of an improper assessment. And, importantly, resolutions that minimize impacts to the government can maximize the benefit to the taxpayer.

A lack of clear statutory definitions, political tax shifting or a simple error can cause a breakdown in the tax system. In Johnson County, Kan., the assessor raised the assessments on all big box retail stores, in some cases by over 100 percent. Recently, the Kansas State Board of Tax Appeals found those assessments to be excessive. The board reduced taxable values in several of the lead cases back to original levels, and the excessive assessment caused a shortfall.

The Cook County, Ill., assessor has been in the news for raising assessments on commercial real estate in many cases by more than 100 percent. If those assessments are found to be excessive, it could be detrimental for the tax authorities and taxpayers alike. In Cook County, the assessor has stated that the increase is in response to prior underassessment.

SEEK UNIFORMITY, CLARITY

With tremendous swings in assessment and taxes, how can taxpayers and assessors ensure a fair system? Uniform standards and measurements are the answer.

Like the income tax code, the property tax code is criticized for being confusing and overly wordy. To achieve greater equity and predictability, clarity is key. Defined measures of assessed value and standards to ensure uniform assessment results will help create transparency and ensure fundamental fairness between neighbors and competitors, so that no one has an advantage nor a disadvantage.

All taxpayers must be subject to the same measurement. For instance, a government cannot apply an income tax as a tax on gross income for one taxpayer and on net income for another. Likewise, one taxpayer should not be taxed on the value of a property that is available for sale or lease, and another owner taxed based on the value of its property with a tenant in place. Because tax law under most state constitutions must be applied uniformly, one set of rules must be established for all, and what is being taxed should be clearly defined.

Tax laws often include phrases like "true cash value" and "fair value." To be clear, the only measure of taxable value common to all property types is the fee simple, unencumbered value. The value of a property that is measured notwithstanding the current occupant or tenant is not necessarily the price that was paid for the property; it could be higher or lower. And because this concept is difficult for many taxpayers and assessors to understand, there needs to be a second check on the system; that safeguard is taxpayers' right to challenge their assessment based on their neighbors' and competitors' assessments.

To protect themselves on complex matters, it is often helpful for taxpayers to hire counsel that is intimately familiar with the law, real estate valuation and the local individuals with whom the taxpayer will be negotiating. To reduce the need for counsel, get involved with trade groups and state chambers of commerce, which can aid in correcting the tax system.

Uniform measurements of assessment, the ability to challenge the uniformity of results, and swift resolutions combine to create fairness and stability, which in turn enhance the fiscal health of both taxpayers and tax districts.

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Kieran Jennings of Siegel Jennings Co. explains how taxpayers and assessors ensure a fair system, with tremendous swings in assessment and taxes.
Nov
21

Achieving Fair Taxation Of Big Box Retrofits

Issues to address to ensure a big box retrofit doesn't sustain an excessive tax assessment.

As more and more large retail spaces return to the market for sale or lease, creative investors are looking for ways to breathe new life into the big box. These retrofits saddle local tax appraisal districts with the difficult task of valuing a big box in a new incarnation.

When the appeal season approaches, it is important to look for key changes to the appraisal district's valuation model for the existing structure to ensure that the property is being assessed fairly after the retrofit. Whether the jurisdiction employs the income or cost approach to value commercial property, having the correct classification, effective age, effective rent and correct net rentable area are among the most important factors for an accurate assessment. In addition, the assessor will need to account for functional obsolescence and the possible existence of surplus land.

Valuation models previously used by taxing authorities likely factored in a single-tenant building. If the new use converts the building to a multitenant structure, the assessor should factor in the conversion. Perhaps the appraisal district previously classified the use as Freestanding Retail or Big Box Retail, and now it is a Call Center, Church, or Gym. Ensuring that the classification of the property is correct is the first step in getting a more accurate assessed value for property tax purposes.

Next, it will be important to note the effective age the appraisal district is using to value the newly retrofitted box. Appraisal districts often use the effective age of a building, based on its utility and physical wear and tear, rather than the actual number of years since the construction date. Was there a significant adjustment made to the effective age based on a remodel or tenant improvements? Has the retrofit enhanced the utility of the structure?

There is no doubt that transforming vacant big boxes requires great expense. Big boxes are generally considered to be mediocre-quality buildings. Many times, big boxes are cookie-cutter structures and not necessarily constructed to last more than 30 years without a major overhaul. Typical big boxes have a linear alignment of lighting and structural bays, and if the box is subdivided for multitenant use, there is a good chance that additional electrical work, plumbing and HVAC may be required.

Converting a box from single to multitenant use may also require additional exterior entryways. If the property is being valued using the income approach, keeping track of the expense required to convert the box into another use will be important so that an effective rental rate can be later calculated. On an income approach, if an appraisal district appraiser does not account for the cost of the retrofit in some way, the assessed value may be overstated.

Another challenge with big box retrofits is the depth of bays. Oftentimes, even after what can be considered a successful adaptive reuse, portions of the building may never be used again by the new user. The appraisal district should factor decommissioned square footage into the valuation model and make a distinction between gross building area and net rentable area. If there is square footage that is unusable or used for storage or warehouse purposes, it may warrant a different rental rate than the main portion of the converted space.

The fact that big boxes are generally build-to-suit properties should also be considered. Though costly, it may be easy to remove the previous user's brand from the interior of the building, but what about the exterior? Big box retailers purposefully built their boxes in a manner that would allow passersby to identify them instantly. The new owner is then left with the difficult task of getting rid of the very recognizable trade dress that the original owner required. Regardless of the new use, there is likely functional obsolescence created by the original user's specific branding and needs. Functional obsolescence can be due to size, ceiling height, ornamental fronts or various other factors.

An additional factor that may be relevant to the valuation of the retrofit for property tax purposes is the land. Big boxes typically require large parking lots and infrastructure that other users may not need. Analysis can determine whether the new user is left with surplus land. If the extra land cannot be sold separately and lacks a separate highest-and-best use, the appraisal district may be able to adjust the land value.

Ensuring that a big box is accurately valued for property tax purposes in the first year after a retrofit will have a long-term impact on the asset's tax liability. It is, therefore, worthwhile to invest the time it takes to review the assessment and the methodology used to arrive at the assessed value. 

Darlene Sullivan is a partner in Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which represents taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Issues to address to ensure a big box retrofit doesn’t sustain an excessive tax assessment.
Nov
19

Beware of New Property Tax Legislation

Many states are attempting to change established law, causing commercial property taxes to skyrocket.

No one wants to be blindsided with additional tax liability. This is why many businesses belong to industry groups that closely monitor liability for income taxes. Unfortunately, these same companies rarely stay on top of legislation that may have a significant impact on their property tax liability.

It is often too late when a taxpayer learns that their tax liability for real estate has increased under a new statute or assessment practice. Property owners that fail to keep up with proposed rule changes are at risk of incurring unexpectedly high tax bills at a time when they may be least-prepared to pay them.

Property owners may take for granted that key precepts assessors use in determining taxable value are so widely held and accepted as to be immutable. Almost every state's tax law holds that a property owner pays property taxes on the asset's "real market value.," Real market value is the price a willing buyer and willing seller would agree upon in an open-market transaction

In a retail real estate sector that is still reeling from widespread store closures and mounting competition from e-commerce, the lease rate for a lease in place may not reflect market rent. Thus, it is the "fee simple" estate that is being valued for tax purposes: What rent does the market data support as of the tax assessment's date?

Valuing the fee simple estate at market rent is a significant taxpayer protection in the changing landscape of today's marketplace for retail spaces. Sales of brick-and-mortar stores have plummeted due to changing consumer spending habits, a decline in international tourism spending and a lack of investor demand for many big boxes. It is no secret that internet sales have battered the department store sector. The resulting closures of large department stores have further dampened investors' appetite for large-box spaces, and these effects have trickled down to impair the value of smaller retail spaces.

Assessors question assumptions

In the past several years, some assessing authorities have pushed to change the definition of real market value to disregard the perspective of a willing buyer in an open market, and to instead create a false value as if the property were fully leased at market rates as of the assessment date.

In Oregon, recent rules are being proposed (and the theory tested in court) with the assumption that a property can always receive a stabilized rent in the market place. Thus, an assessor would use a property's expected occupancy and market rent in using the income approach to determine the fee simple interest. The costs to get to a stabilized rent, according to the new rules, cannot be applied to discount the stabilized rent. Thus, a vacated department store, or a brand new vacant building, will be assessed as if it is receiving full market rent, without reflecting any of the costs associated to get there.

For example, the proposed rule states that it is implied in the cost approach that valuation reflect not only construction and materials but also all indirect costs, such as the cost of carrying the investment in the property after construction is complete but before stabilization is achieved, as well as all marketing costs, sales commission and any applicable holding costs to achieve a stabilized occupancy in a normal market. Thus, even though the taxpayer has not yet incurred all these expenses, they can be added to the taxable value and the taxpayer may not subtract them in arriving at market value for property tax assessment purposes.

The result is that not only will a new vacant space be valued as if it is fully rented, but a second-generation retail space may be assessed under the cost approach as if it is fully leased. The reality of lease-up costs, including holding costs and tenant improvement costs, are simply to be ignored.

The International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) recently published a paper titled Commercial Big-Box Retail: A Guide to Market-Based Valuation. This paper appeared to ignore generally accepted appraisal methods for valuing these types of properties and to advocate for the changes in accepted definitions of property rights that taxing entities in many states are now seeking. Importantly, when American Property Tax Counsel reviewed the IAAO's paper, its lawyers found that many of the propositions cited in the paper were based on cases or laws that had been overturned and were clearly inconsistent with established case law and law.

These attempts by the assessing authorities to change the definition of real market valuation for property taxation purposes should worry commercial property owners, and particularly owners of retail properties, given the continuing potential for prolonged vacancy. For these properties to remain viable, the owners need to mitigate all costs, including property taxes.

A reduction in property taxes can benefit a property owner significantly. Oregon has the benefit of a five-year statutory hold, with some exceptions, on a successful appeal to property taxes. Thus, a $100,000 reduction in property taxes through the appeal process could result in a $500,000 savings.

With the assessing authorities' proposed changes to the tax rules, however, market realities and real market value are compromised.

Cynthia M. Fraser is an attorney specializing in property tax and condemnation litigation at Foster Garvey, the Oregon and Washington member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Many states are attempting to change established law, causing commercial property taxes to skyrocket
Nov
18

How to Reduce Multifamily Property Taxes

Take advantage of the following opportunities for tax savings in the booming multifamily market.

With healthy multifamily market fundamentals and increasing demand from investors, apartment property values are on the rise. For owners concerned about property tax liability, however, there are still opportunities to mitigate assessments and ensure multifamily assets are taxed fairly.

Here are key considerations for common scenarios.

Property Acquisition

Whether an investor is buying a single property or a portfolio, it is wise to understand how the transaction will affect property taxes going forward. In some taxing districts, the assessors will move the value to 80%-90% of the sale price in the assessment year following an acquisition. If the sale is an arm's length, open market transaction with no unusual investment drivers, there remain few arguments against increasing taxable value to equal the sale price, less personal property.

When running income and expense projections on a potential acquisition, look to how the sale will affect taxable value. To pencil in reasonable budgets, consult with local experts who can zero in on a likely tax rate. Those who know the market can forecast local rate increases with some accuracy.

When there are non-open-market factors in a sale – such as unusual financing, tax shelter exchange considerations or a portfolio value allocation based on forecasts – there is more room to make arguments for a value based on an income approach. In discussing this approach with assessors, the greatest source of disagreement is the capitalization or cap rate used to extrapolate value from the income stream.

For apartments in the Midwest, initial cap rates can range from 4.5% to 6.5%, and assessors will often choose rates from the lower end of the range or use an average. Taxpayers who can demonstrate or work with the assessor to derive the correct cap by using appropriate comparable sales will enjoy a more reasonable value discussion.

Opportunity Zones

An opportunity zone stimulates investment within its perimeter by enabling investors to reap tax benefits on deferred capital gains and spur growth. This vehicle has been of special interest to developers of student and low-income housing. To get the full benefit of the new program, investors must decide to invest in a qualified opportunity fund (QOF) by the end of 2019.

Investors in QOFs which were formed to meet a June deadline must invest these funds into qualified property by year end. Investors that miss the deadline will be subject to IRS penalties. After 10 years of investment, 100% of the gain will be free of capital gains. This can enhance returns considerably.

The race to the year-end finish line could lead investors to initiate apartment deals that fail to meet market development yields. When looking at the values for property tax purposes, the costs of such projects driven by tax advantages can be discounted in a valuation analysis.

Procedural Concerns

Property owners' increased sophistication in challenging assessed values has led many taxing jurisdictions to use procedural arguments to shut down a petitioner's case, citing failure to comply with minute details of technical rules such as income disclosure requirements.

• In some jurisdictions, petitioners must disclose certain information for an appeal to go forward. For example, in Minnesota a petitioner that contests the assessed value of income-producing property must provide a slew of information to the county assessor by Aug. 1 of the taxes-payable year. These include: year-end financial statements for both the year of the assessment date and the prior year;
• a rent roll on or near the assessment date listing tenant names, lease start and end dates, base rent, square footage leased and vacant space;
• identification of all lease agreements not disclosed on the above rent roll, listing the tenant name, lease start and end dates, base rent and square footage leased;
• net rentable square footage of the building or buildings; and
• anticipated income and expenses in the form of a proposed budget for the year subsequent to the year of the assessment date.

The duty to disclose is strictly enforced, even if there is no prejudice to the taxing authority. In the case of an appeal for an apartment project, it would be prudent for a petitioner to clarify with the assessor in advance what data is required. Particularly if there is a commercial component to the project, where license agreements can be considered leases, a prior agreement with the assessor on what is required will remove the risk of a case ending on procedural grounds.

Seniors Housing

Many seniors housing complexes include independent living sections; assisted living areas, usually with smaller unit sizes and limited or no kitchen facilities; and memory care areas with even more limited furnishings, locked access and egress and full-time staffing by case professionals.

No matter what type of living area is involved, the monthly rental payment covers services provided to residents over and above rental of an apartment unit. These services are most intensive and comprehensive for residents in memory care, who require the most direct staff attention and receive all meals and services through the facility.

Even assisted living and independent living residents enjoy significant non-realty services, including wellness classes and other programming, spiritual services, medication dispensing, field trips for shopping or other events, onsite dining facilities and operation, and access to full-time staffing at the facility. These services are part of what residents pay, and it's important when trying to determine the real estate value for tax purposes that the service income component is excluded from the valuation analysis.

Although the market is robust for both multifamily investment sales and construction, taxpayers who apply a data-based approach with knowledge of local market conditions, procedures and opportunities can achieve a reasonable property tax bill.

Margaret A. Ford is a partner at Smith, Gendler, Shiell, Sheff, Ford & Maher P.A., the Minnesota member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Take advantage of the following opportunities for tax savings in the booming multifamily market.
Nov
11

How Value Transfers Reduce Tax Liability

Investment value is not market value for property tax purposes because the excess value transfers elsewhere, according to attorney Benjamin Blair. But where does the value go?

When a new building enters the market with a headline-grabbing development budget, the local tax assessor is often happy to use the value stated on the construction permit as a blueprint for a high initial tax burden. After all, would a property owner fight an assessment equal to construction cost? The answer is yes, and here is why the taxpayer should file a protest.

Consider this all-too-common scenario: A new building's publicized development cost is, say, $50 million. The first year after the completion of construction, the assessor assigns the property a market value of $50 million. The owner, now a taxpayer, protests the assessment, relying on an appraisal that shows the property's value to be only $40 million.

The initial reaction of virtually every assessor that faces this common pattern is skepticism—skepticism sometimes shared by the judges deciding the tax appeal. How can it be that the property "lost" $10 million in value so quickly? Why would the owner have even constructed the building if it was an economic loser?

An owner who can explain this value loss—or, more accurately, this value transfer—will be better prepared to ensure a property's tax assessments are based solely on the value of the real estate in question. And, when appropriate, that owner will be prepared to challenge inaccurate assessments.

COST IS NOT MARKET VALUE

Anyone who has ever purchased a new car or made-to-order clothing understands that cost may not equal value. Regardless of the price the buyer paid, those items are worth less to the market after the initial sale. The same factors that immediately depreciate a new car or custom suit affect some types of real estate.

A property can have an off-the-rack market value and then minutes later have a resale value that is different. This does not mean that the owner overpaid for the asset. Rather, the owner paid what the asset was worth to that owner, but a second buyer will not necessarily pay the same price at a later sale.

Real estate buyers will not pay for branding elements, design elements or items of personal preference. When a building is built to the specifications of a specific user, the design, layout and components make it unlikely that cost will equal market value. These buildings exist because they are worth the cost to the first user, not because they inherently have an increased market value.

Investment value is not market value for property tax purposes because the excess value transfers elsewhere. The key question is, where does the value go?

WHERE THE VALUE GOES

Circumstances vary and different properties will transfer value in different ways. Here are some common ways it can occur.

The examples of a custom suit or built-to-suit building illustrate how value can transfer to a person or organization, but value can also transfer to another property. For example, a golf course surrounded by homes is unlikely to have a market value equal to its development cost. The golf course's value is not in the golf course alone; much of its value is reflected in the increased sales prices garnered for the surrounding homes. Likewise, amenities in a subdivision or common spaces in a condominium tower have little value on their own because their value is transferred to the adjacent properties.

Value can also transfer within a property. For example, a parking garage or conference center in a suburban office development is unlikely to generate sufficient rent to make those assets independently feasible, but the increase in rents achievable to the adjoining tenant spaces can make those amenities valuable to the whole. Were the parking garage to sell in the open market, it would almost certainly garner a sale price below its development cost.

Finally, value can transfer to the community. A highway interchange will never have a market value equal to its multimillion-dollar price tag, and public transit systems and arenas would never be justified based on ticket sales alone. Communities deem these projects worthwhile, however. The value of such properties transfers to the community.

Similarly, in many markets the cost of "green" building features, such as a green roof or permeable parking surfaces, is rarely recovered upon the property's sale. Developers still incur those development expenses, even when they will not contribute to the property's profitability. The value of those features is transferred to the community, which receives air purification and water retention benefits.

FIGHT FOR TRANSFERRED VALUE

Understanding the concept of transferred value is important, both because it explains the motivations of those who build and own properties that are worth less than cost to the open market, and because it can help to avoid overvaluing the property. Property can be overvalued in many situations—for example, for insurance or financing purposes—but the pain of overvaluation is most acute in property taxation, since overvaluation generates a higher tax bill and corresponding lower profitability for the life of the asset.

Understanding transferred value can also assist enterprising owners in generating additional revenue streams. If part of the property's value transfers to another person, property or the community at large, then the owner may be able to build a case for monetizing the value transferred to others.

In times of stagnant growth and personnel cutbacks, assessors are eager to capitalize on published construction costs. But by explaining how cost relates to market value, and being able to show where the value went, diligent owners and property managers can reduce fixed expenses, lower tenant occupancy costs and ultimately improve profitability.

Benjamin Blair is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the international law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Investment value is not market value for property tax purposes because the excess value transfers elsewhere, according to attorney Benjamin Blair. But where does the value go?
Nov
06

Retail Property Taxes Will Rise

​Unless assessors can recognize the challenges facing shopping centers, taxes will increase dramatically.

As retailers rise and fall in the age of Amazon, property taxes remain one of the retailer's largest operating expenses. That makes it critical to monitor assessments of retail properties and be ready to contest unfairly high taxable valuations.

Assessors – and property owners attempting to educate those assessors – must understand how the changes taking place in the retail sector affect property value. Assessors must adjust their models to reflect new market realities, and property owners or their representatives must be able to explain why previously held valuation assumptions could no longer be valid.

No going back

Changing consumer tastes have always required retailers to adapt in order to survive, but traditional retailers are facing a different kind of challenge today. The increasing role of e-commerce in overall sales reflects a fundamental change in consumer behavior that will not reverse course with the whims of fashion. The ability to shop online is resetting consumer expectations, and retailers are struggling to adapt and stay competitive.

This struggle is evident in store closings that in 2019 are outpacing closings from the prior year. In addition to the threat of e-commerce, some economists believe a recession is coming in 2020. Falling retail sales, rising assessed property values and changing consumer demographics could combine to accelerate store closings in the years to come.

With millennials and Generation Z mixing into the workforce and increasing the demand for online shopping, retailers and property owners are facing new challenges in catering to consumer expectations unique to these generations. Strategies range from adjusting store buildouts to completely changing the store footprint to fulfill online orders as retailers do what they can to compete with online sellers. In addition to these changes, many property owners are stepping away from traditional big box retailers and are instead looking to restaurants and entertainment venues to anchor shopping centers and drive customer traffic.

Restaurants and experiential retail

Across the nation, retail property owners are working to fill vacant spaces with tenants that will offer millennials and Generation Z an exciting and unique shopping experience. In doing so, these owners are attempting to "e-commerce proof" their centers by shifting from big box anchors to an experiential model. Some retailers catering to these two tech-savvy generations are using tenant improvement allowances to build out highly specialized spaces, while others focus on social media. Select retailers even offer discounts to shoppers who share photos of their store or products on platforms such as Instagram.

Retail developments that once contained 40% to 50% restaurants are now filling as much as 70% of their spaces with restaurant operators in an attempt to drive traffic. A rising threat to this strategy are food delivery services such as Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Door Dash, which are collaborating with major restaurants that have previously had no food delivery. Pizza chains and other food-delivery-based retailers losing market share must now re-think their strategy and even partner with these third parties to expand their customer base.

Home food delivery partnerships continue to evolve as well, with restaurant operators looking into cloud kitchen concepts. These allow restaurant operators to operate from industrial space, avoiding retail rents and the need to pay back above-market tenant improvement allowances. Once the cloud kitchen space is running, the operator can rely on third-party delivery services to get the product to the consumer. This is a growing risk to shopping centers that rely on a restaurant tenant base to draw customers.

Clicks and bricks

Physical retailers attempting to compete with Amazon's fast delivery have introduced buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS). Many sellers have found BOPIS difficult to implement due to expensive software that tracks live inventory and requires staff training. Essentially converting a retail-only property into a retail and warehouse hybrid, the method may require modifications to the real estate. This reclassification should be discussed with assessors, because retail space typically commands higher rental rates than warehouse space.

Grocery anchors have also begun to adopt the BOPIS model, and some are finding the logistics a challenge given their existing footprint. As a result, some stores are expanding into smaller, adjacent in-line suites to offer this service. Where this happens, a property owner that was once receiving all in-line rents may now collect reduced rents for these suites, given they are now part of the anchor space. In this scenario, it is important for the valuation to weigh the potential grocer expansion into these in-line suites and adjust as needed.

Assessors must understand the changes rapidly taking place for this product type and their implications for valuation metrics. Given millennials' and Gen Z's familiarly with the internet, e-commerce as a percentage of retail sales is expected to continue to rise.

As property owners increase tenant improvement allowances so retailers can keep up with changing consumer tastes, appraisal districts need to consider how above-market tenant improvement allowances affect the lease rate the tenant is responsible for paying. Assessors must analyze the rental rate to factor in these build out costs and, if needed, adjust rent over the least term to reflect the portion that is paying for more costly buildouts. Only then can the assessor conduct a proper rental analysis for the subject property.

Nuanced classification

In addition to thoroughly analyzing rental rates and vacancy risk, assessors must also consider retail classification. With restaurants stepping into the anchor role in many shopping centers, increased traction by cloud kitchens may pose a threat to these tenants' long-term strength. Struggling retailers attempting to implement BOPIS compound this uncertainty, particularly with a potential recession on the horizon. Assessors must consider these factors before selecting appropriate rental rates, capitalization rates and vacancy and collection loss inputs to calculate taxable value.
Kirk Garza is a Director and licensed Texas Property Tax Consultant with the Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson, PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He was assisted by Sam Auvermann and Krishtian Bazan, summer interns with the firm.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Unless assessors can recognize the challenges facing shopping centers, taxes will increase dramatically
Sep
17

Environmental Contamination Reduces Market Value

Protest any tax assessment that doesn't reflect the cost to remediate any existing environmental contamination.

Owners of properties with environmental contamination already carry the financial burden of removal or remediation costs, whether they cure the problem themselves or sell to a buyer who is sure to deduct anticipated remediation expenses from the sale price. Fortunately, New York law allows those property owners to reduce their property tax burden to reflect their asset's compromised value.

Tax types

Most local governments in the United States impose a property tax on real estate as a primary source of revenue, levied and calculated by either ad valorem or specific means. Latin for "according to value," ad valorem taxes are imposed proportionately based upon the market value of the property. Thus, the higher the market value, the higher the real estate tax.

Specific taxes, on the other hand, are fixed sums without regard to underlying real estate value. School, county and town governments nearly always compute real property taxes using the ad valorem method, whereas lighting, garbage or sewer districts typically apply specific taxes. Because school and county/town taxes account for the overwhelming majority of a property tax bill, property owners frequently use assessment litigation concerning the market value of the subject property to reduce assessments and, as a result, lower the real property tax burden.

The cardinal principle of property valuation for tax purposes is that assessments cannot exceed full market value. Many states including New York codify this in their constitutions. The concept of full value is regularly equated with market value, which is the highest price a willing buyer would pay and a willing seller accept, both being fully informed.

Disagreements often arise if the subject property is afflicted with environmental contamination. The treatment of environmental contamination and remediation costs is of particular concern to both owners and municipalities. Owners seeking to depress taxable values and thereby reduce their tax burden claim these expenses dollar-for-dollar off the market value under the principle of substitution. In other words, a proposed buyer would not pay more than $8,000 for a parcel worth $10,000 which needs $2,000 of remediation.

On the other hand, municipalities would prefer the adoption of a rule (either via legislation or court decision) barring any assessment reduction for environmental contamination. Otherwise, they claim, polluters would succeed in shifting the cost of environmental cleanup to the innocent taxpaying public, in contravention of the public policy of imposing remediation costs on polluting property owners and their successors in title.

Pivotal case

Fortunately for property owners, a seminal 1996 court decision guides the treatment of environmental costs to cure taxable value in New York. In Commerce Holding Corp. vs. Town of Babylon, the petitioner purchased 2.7 acres of land in the Town of Babylon, Suffolk County. A former tenant of the property had performed metal plating on the premises and discharged wastewater containing multiple heavy metals into on-site leaching pools, ultimately resulting in the severe contamination of the parcel. The owner filed tax appeals and argued the value of the property should be reduced by the considerable costs needed to clean up the parcel.

As expected, the town's position relied on a public policy approach and urged the court to reject any argument for a reduced assessment. Ultimately, the case traveled to New York's highest court, which summarily rejected the public policy arguments that polluters should not be rewarded with lower assessments.

Instead, the court applied the constitutional and statutory requirements of full market value assessments, holding that the full value requirement is a "constitutional" mandate which cannot be swept aside in favor of public policy. Thus, property must be valued as clean, with the value reduced by the costs to cure the remediation per year. Challenges seeking the limitation or outright reversal of the Commerce Holding case have been continually rejected.

A recent clarification

The New York State Court of Appeals did not address remediation again in a property tax litigation context for almost 20 years after Commerce Holding. In a 2013 case, Roth vs. City of Syracuse, a property owner sought to have the assessment on certain rented properties reduced because of the presence of lead-based paint.

The court declined to expand the application of Commerce Holding in this case for two significant reasons. First, the owner continued to rent the buildings and collect income. Second, the owner had not taken any steps to remove or remediate the lead paint and restore the properties. Thus, to successfully claim an assessment reduction, a property owner should not stand idle but take definitive actions to remediate the property. 

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLC, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Protest any tax assessment that doesn’t reflect the cost to remediate any existing environmental contamination.
Sep
05

Big Property Tax Savings Are Available

Millions of property tax dollars can be saved by understanding seven issues before buying real estate.

We asked property tax lawyers around the country for tax advice they wish their clients would request before an acquisition to avoid excessive taxation. Their responses, like tax laws, vary by state:

Ask Early. Transaction timing can help avoid having an assessment increased to equal the sale price, says Gilbert Davila, a Principal with property tax law firm Popp Hutcheson in Austin, Texas. Texas reassesses every Jan. 1, so a transfer in the third or fourth quarter is likely to receive an assessment increase the following January. Closing the transaction in the first or second quarter allows time to gather facts for an appeal.

In Chicago, real estate taxes following a purchase depend on location and where the county is in its three-year revaluation cycle, says Mary Anne "Molly" Phelan, a partner with Siegel Jennings Co. LPA. Local counsel can advise whether to expect an immediate increase or a couple years of stable property taxes.

Structure the Transaction. Purchasing an entity that owns real estate or combining the purchase of assets and real estate may offer advantages. For example, Pennsylvania authorities calculate transfer tax using current assessed value when a buyer acquires 100% of interests in a property's holding company. With an outright purchase of real estate, however, transfer tax applies to the purchase price.

If a property is under-assessed, purchasing the holding company can reduce the tax amount and avoid the need to appeal an assessment based on a purchase price well above the current assessed value. The buyer saves on transfer taxes upfront and will likely save on future real estate taxes with an unchanged assessment.

In cities like Pittsburgh, where transfer tax is 4.5% and soon to be 5%, the savings can be significant. Some savvy buyers have structured their purchases of Pittsburgh properties using the "89/11" provisions of the tax statute. This precluded transfer tax for buyers who acquired 89% or less of the owning entity, then purchased the remaining 11% after a three-year hold. The strategy drew a public outcry following some high-profile transfers, prompting a recent legal change that made this approach more difficult.

Chicago buyers of a business that owns real estate may avoid a property tax increase altogether, Phelan observes. A local attorney is critical in such cases to advise on not only the law, but also on nuances of its application and the local political climate.

Allocate Properly. Property sale prices often include going-concern value, business value and personal property. Phelan cautions buyers to carefully segregate the real from the non-real components exempt from property tax. Then, "document, document, document," she says. "Having documentation in the file to back up the buyer's allocation of the various components can make all the difference if an appeal is filed down the road."

Similarly, Robb Udell, an attorney with Rennert Vogel Mandler & Rodriguez PA in Miami, advises that Florida law imposes a documentary stamp tax on consideration paid for real estate. There is no documentary stamp tax due for personal property or intangible value, however, so ensure the recorded price excludes those values. Hotel transactions include significant tangible and intangible personal property value.

Details Matter. Details may strengthen arguments opposing an assessor's attempt to increase the assessment to equal the sale price. For example, 1031 exchanges, portfolio transactions or purchases by a REIT may not meet a jurisdiction's criteria for an arms-length, market value sale.

What Information Will Be Public? Ask a local attorney what information will become public in a sale. Texas buyers are not required to divulge their acquisition price on the deed, Davila says, so assessors go to great lengths to discover Texas sale prices. They may search for loan documentation or use subscription services documenting recent sales, for example, to estimate the price.

Budget Correctly. Buyers who fail to understand the law when budgeting for real estate taxes can overpay on acquisitions by millions of dollars. This is especially true in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where taxing entities can appeal to increase a property's assessment.

School districts often appeal assessments to chase sale prices, then file "fishing expedition" discovery requests of the buyer's financial information to support the district's case. Out-of-state buyers have overpaid for property due to their budgeting on historical real estate taxes not accounting for the potential government-initiated increase appeal. This common practice in Pennsylvania has drawn increasing challenges from property owners outraged at being unfairly singled out for an increase.

In Georgia, it is the assessors who increase assessments on properties using recent sale prices. Lisa Stuckey, partner in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, advises that – due to a recent change in Georgia law – assessors can value recently traded properties as high as the purchase price, but not higher. Since the statutory change, many assessors have adopted a policy of increasing assessments to full sale prices in the year following the sale.

Understand Assessment Caps. In Florida, there are two values related to property taxes: market value and assessed value. County property appraisers determine market value annually and cap increases in the assessed value of non-homestead properties at 10% from one year to the next. School districts tax uncapped market value, however, so that portion of a property owner's tax bill is sensitive to increases in market value.

Udell cautions that capped assessments reset to market value the tax year following a change of property ownership or control, so a purchase price consistent with the prior year's market value can still have a significant tax impact if the previous assessment was capped at a low value. Capped assessments also reset to market value the tax year following an improvement that increases market value by 25% or more, and other factors also can affect the cap's applicability. Thus, proper budgeting for tax consequences requires a clear understanding of Florida law.

Asking the right questions can save enormous tax dollars. 

Sharon DiPaolo is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Tammy L. Ribar is a director of Pittsburgh law firm Houston Harbaugh PC and Chair of its Real Estate Department.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Millions of property tax dollars can be saved by understanding seven issues before buying real estate.
Jun
18

Use Restrictions Can Actually Lower A Tax Bill

Savvy commercial owners are employing use restrictions as a means to reduce taxable property values.

Most property managers and owners can easily speak about their property's most productive use, in addition to speculating on a list of potential uses. Not all of them, however, are as keenly aware of their property's specific use restrictions; even fewer realize how those limitations affect the property's value for tax assessment purposes. 

Government-Imposed Restrictions

Local zoning laws impose the most common use restrictions. Their impact on property uses and potential values is commonly understood. A property zoned for development as a retail power center, for example, will generally have a higher market value than a property that is limited to uses, such as auto repair or animal kenneling. Market values are often used to set tax assessment values, so a use restriction that increases or reduces market value will also increase or reduce a property's tax assessment value. 

Less common restrictions that can impair a property's value include covenants or agreements entered into with a municipality. Whether this pertains to the future development of a parking structure, to meet open-space standards, or to fire department ingress and egress lanes these covenants typically limit the owner's ability to fully develop the property and, thereby, reduce its market value. Historical designations by local government also generally reduce a property's market value. This is because they limit the owner's ability to configure the property to produce maximum rental income. 

Even fire suppression requirements reduced market value for one commercial property. This multi-building campus was constructed to suit a technology company, with all fire suppression controls located in a single building. When the technology firm moved out, regulations enforced by the local fire department prohibited the new owner from leasing or selling individual buildings because all but one of the structures lacked onsite control of the existing sprinkler system, those being in another building. 

Semi-private Restrictions 

The complexities of government imposed restrictions pale in comparison with semi-private restrictions that are often created during a property's development. Consider the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) on use imposed when property is subdivided for development. 

CC&Rs are not typically classified as "government-imposed," as they are based on an agreement between the developer and property owners within a development. Yet, these covenants do limit how the property may be used. While CC&Rs often govern planned residential developments, they also regulate property usage in some industrial parks and retail centers. Because CC&Rs lack the uniformity of government-imposed zoning laws which, theoretically, would apply equally to competing commercial properties, the restrictions in CC&Rs usually impact property market values negatively by limiting potential uses. 

Another complex area involves easements between adjacent property owners or among multiple owners within a larger development. Like CC&Rs, easements limit property uses and can reduce market value.

Private Restrictions 

The most common private usage constraint is the deed restriction, which prevents the buyer of a property from using it for certain purposes. The treatment of deed restrictions and other limitations imposed by property owners varies by state. In some states like California, property tax assessors must ignore private use restrictions, while in other states, such restrictions are taken into consideration when assessing properties. 

Deed restrictions and other privately imposed usage limitations can significantly affect real estate values. A property restricted to residential use where neighboring properties are allowed retail or industrial uses will have a lower market value. However, if the local tax assessor is prohibited from considering such private restrictions, the property's assessed value may be much higher than the market would otherwise indicate. 

State, Local Laws Often Prevail 

Clearly, use restrictions — whether government-imposed or privately imposed — will usually impact a property's market value. From a property tax perspective, however, an assessor may or may not consider use restrictions in determining taxable value. 

Whether and how an assessor considers use restrictions in an assessment usually depends on state and local tax laws. In California, property tax regulations, court decisions and guidance documents issued by the State Board of Equalization assist property owners in understanding how use restrictions may or may not affect their property's taxable value. 

In some cases, the treatment of use restrictions is based on local tax assessment policies that are not set forth in any particular statute, regulation or court decision. Tax or legal advisers who interact regularly with local tax assessors can be invaluable resources in those jurisdictions. 

Use restrictions play a significant role in property tax assessments. Knowing a property's use restrictions and how those restrictions affect value is crucial to obtaining a fair property tax assessment. Armed with information about their particular use restrictions, savvy property managers and owners will find out how the local assessor uses those restrictions to determine taxable value. In most cases, that will involve collaborating with a professional experienced in handling local property taxes. 

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder with the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP in Irvine, California. The firm is the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Savvy commercial owners are employing use restrictions as a means to reduce taxable property values.
Jun
06

Nothing New About The Old ‘Dark Store Theory’

Statutory law continues to require that assessors value only the real estate, not the success or lack thereof, by the owner of the real estate.

Assessors and their minions frequently take the position that an occupied store is more valuable than an unoccupied store, a conclusion commonly referred to as the "Dark Store: theory. Owners of big-box retail properties and their tax advisers bristle at this erroneous contention, because real property taxes are just that– a tax on the value of the real estate.

It is the assessor's function to value the property's real estate components, which consist primarily of land, bricks and mortar; or in the cases of most big boxes, land, concrete, pop-up concrete or metal slabs. It is a common but mistaken practice of assessors to place a greater taxable value on a big box occupied by a major retailer than on a vacant building of equal design, construction and utility.

This errant valuation methodology has given rise to controversy played out through expert testimony and sophisticated argument before administrative agencies and the courts. It is in this context that the term "Dark Store theory" has come into play.

A call to action

Owners of big-box real estate need to deliver a consistent response in the face of this increasingly pervasive and costly misconception. And because informal meetings between the owner's representative and the assessor are limited in time and scope, providing little opportunity for sophisticated argument, these owners must take a position that can be expressed in laymen's terms and understood by the average taxpayer.

That message is that the dark store theory is not a theory at all. It is a reality. The real estate components of occupied buildings have the same value as the real estate components of vacant buildings.

Dark Store theory has become part of the dialogue when valuing commercial properties for taxation. It's vilified as though it were a new concept with dark connotations, like the revelation of a new and insidious scheme by Darth Vader. In fact, its underlying concept is as old as the exercise of determining value for any purpose.

Unless a particular property has actually sold on a particular date, any opinion of its market value is hypothetical. Any such opinion is subject to informed disagreement within the boundaries of accepted valuation methodology. The standards of that methodology, as expressed, for example, in the Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practices, require that the value of a property is based on the willing-buyer, willing-seller concept. The assumption is that a willing buyer wants to buy and use the property.

Logic, not to mention all standards of appraisal practice, dictates that the hypothetical buyer is buying the property for some purpose. Whatever that purpose, it precludes the seller's continuing to use the property. This discussion is independent of a sale-leaseback transaction, which is a financing strategy.

The reality is that the buyer wants to use the property, as is the case across the spectrum of property purchases.

A residential parallel

The same concept applies to the sale of a suburban bungalow. When the Smiths buy a home from the Joneses, they expect the Jones family to vacate the property by the closing date. The Smith family bought the property expecting it to be available for occupancy on the closing date. Nothing about the selling family's success or possible dysfunction affects the purchase price.

In valuing single-family homes, assessors do not discuss the resident families' success (all the children became neurosurgeons). Yet assessors effectively do so in valuing big boxes, which by all valuation standards must be deemed available for occupancy as of the date of closing.

One does not hear the expression "dark house theory," because the assumption of availability of the property for use by the buyer at closing is intrinsic to the transaction. In appraisal parlance, the concept has been and remains that the exchanged property is "free and clear of all encumbrances," ergo vacant, or in current usage, "dark."

Many big boxes, typically measuring in the neighborhood of 100,000 square feet, have come on the market in recent years due in part to changing consumer buying patterns and reduced store counts by retailers. There is a tendency among assessors to over-value properties occupied by the surviving big-box retailers, in effect imposing a form of income tax that they justify by citing retailers' over-all company sales, while turning a blind eye to the availability of big boxes standing dark in the same market.

The sales volume and profits produced by a big-box store are as unrelated to the real estate's value as apple pie is to a computer. Thus, two side-by-side buildings of the same size and specifications, with one housing a high-profit retailer and the other an empty or dark box, have the same real estate value.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Statutory law continues to require that assessors value only the real estate, not the success or lack thereof, by the owner of the real estate.
Jun
06

Benjamin Blair: Creative Deal Structures Can Yield Tax Benefits

Managing expenses is one of the best ways to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties, and prudent developers know the importance of carefully monitoring and challenging property tax assessments. But student housing, as a subsector populated largely by tax-exempt educational institutions, presents unique opportunities to minimize taxes for some projects.

Excepting abatements and other local incentives, there are two principal ways to minimize property taxes: The property can be entitled to a statutory tax exemption, or the property can be deemed to have a value of zero dollars. In certain instances, creative structuring can take advantage of these options to improve the developer's cash flow and returns.

Beneficial vs. actual ownership

One of the most potent ways to minimize property taxes is a statutory exemption. For university-owned housing, exemptions will almost always eliminate the tax bill before it arrives in the mail. But what if the property is owned by a private developer, not the university?

Although private ownership by a for-profit entity often sentences real estate to a lifetime of property tax liability, some states disregard formal ownership for property tax purposes, focusing instead on who benefits from the asset. In states adopting this "beneficial ownership" doctrine, the law may treat privately owned properties the same as university-owned real estate, entitling them to exemptions otherwise limited to properties used for educational purposes.

Consider the example of a small private college that wants to develop new on-campus housing, but lacks the resources to borrow the necessary funds to construct the building. Instead, the school contracts with a private developer, which builds the student housing and leases it to the college. The school then operates and maintains the property as student housing, just as it would any other dormitory.

Even though a private developer owns the structure, the benefits of the building go to the college, which may be deemed the beneficial owner of the property. Because the college's intent is not to earn a profit, but rather to support its educational mission by providing housing for its students, the property is exempt.

This structure still allows the developer/owner the right to earn a reasonable return on its investment in the property. This result is logical when one considers that the college's intent is to finance the construction of on-campus housing. If the college financed the construction of a dormitory with a bank loan, the school would not be disqualified from claiming an exemption just because the bank earned a return on its loan.

Precluding profit in this manner would effectively prevent any educational institution from borrowing funds at market rates to finance any construction. Just as the bank is entitled to a reasonable return on its loan, the student housing developer is entitled to a reasonable return on the lease.

Of course, beneficial ownership works in both directions, potentially making an otherwise-exempt property taxable. If university-owned property is leased to a private party who uses it to make a profit, then the property would likely not be entitled to an exemption. Even though the true owner is an exempt educational entity, the beneficial owner is not exempt.

Leaseholds without market value

Even when a property lacks a statutory exemption, however, it will not incur property tax liability if it is deemed to have a negligible market value. An assessed value of zero dollars will always result in zero taxes owed.

A recent case from the West Virginia Supreme Court shows how a new student housing development – or, at least, the developer's leasehold interest in the development – could properly be assessed as having no market value.

In that case, a university leased land to a developer for the purpose of developing student housing with a retail component. The developer constructed the improvements on the leased land at its own expense and transferred title of the new building to the university, which executed a sublease to use the student housing. As the subtenant, the university offered the on-campus housing to students, collecting rent and turning it over to the developer, who then returned 50 percent of the net cash back to the university as a payment on its lease.

The university operated the residential facilities, therefore, while the developer was compensated for constructing the improvements and retained the right to sublease the retail space. The developer's interest in the property was a leasehold.

Because university-owned property is exempt, the university's interest in the property was not taxable. But in West Virginia, leaseholds are taxable real property interests, meaning the developer's interest needed to be assessed. The county assessor concluded that the developer's interest in the property had a value independent from the university's exempt interest, and assessed that interest. The developer challenged the assessment, arguing for a zero value.

The case eventually came before the state Supreme Court, which held that the value, if any, of a leasehold interest is based on whether the leasehold is economically advantageous to the lessee and freely assignable, so that the lessee can realize the benefit of the lease in the marketplace. After all, market value is measured by what the interest could garner if sold on the open market.

If the lease could not be freely assigned to another party, it would have no value in the marketplace. Because the lease was drafted in a way that the assessor conceded was not freely assignable, the Court affirmed that the value of the developer's leasehold interest was zero.

Beware potential pitfalls

The applicability of these strategies to a particular project is fact-dependent. For example, some states, especially those with large amounts of public lands, tax possessory interests. In those states, a government-owned property leased to a private entity can be taxed if the private entity has a "possessory interest" in the real estate. Likewise, privately owned improvements on exempt land can be taxable because the tax is being imposed on the improvement, rather than on the whole property. And assessors eager to increase the tax base can still challenge even the best structuring.

Not all development deals will be ripe for these types of exemption-planning opportunities, nor will all student housing developers find these strategies compatible with their business objectives. Competent tax counsel can help developers weigh the myriad factors that may determine what strategy can deliver the best returns.

But property taxes are one of the largest ongoing expenses of property ownership, so opportunities to minimize their impact on a project's financial results deserve full consideration. With some creativity, developers can improve their own profitability while also helping their academic partners achieve their goals. 

Benjamin Blair is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the international law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Apr
18

Protect Your Rights To Protest Tax Assessments In Texas

Learn best practices for meeting property tax deadlines and handling property tax appeals.

Beset by ever-increasing tax assessments, Texas property owners are allowed to seek a remedy by protesting taxable property values set by appraisal districts. The property tax system can be intimidating, however, and the process is complex and fraught with pitfalls.

To maximize results, taxpayers must understand the assessment process and the deadlines governing filings and protests. What follows are best practices for protecting the right to protest in Texas, along with some tips for meeting key deadlines. And remember, deadlines are subject to exceptions and may change for specific properties, so consult the Texas Property Tax Code or a property tax professional to verify applicable dates.

Learn the appeal timeline. 

Strict filing deadlines govern renditions, protests, litigation appeals and tax payments. Failure to comply with these deadlines may be devastating, resulting in forfeiture of the taxpayer's appeal rights and incurring substantial penalties and interest.

Meet protest deadlines.

Texas appraisal districts value real and personal property annually, usually as of Jan. 1. For commercial real estate, appraisal districts are required to deliver notices of appraised value by May 1 or as soon thereafter as practicable. Taxpayers in most jurisdictions can expect to receive notices of appraised value sometime in April. The deadline for protesting an appraised value is the later of May 15 or 30 days after the date the notice was delivered to the property owner.

In certain situations, appraisal districts are not required to send notices of appraised value, such as when the appraised value of the property did not increase from the prior year. A best practice is to track all documents and follow up with the appraisal district if you have not received a notice by late April to ensure you have the relevant information prior to the May 15 protest deadline. Keep in mind that it is the taxpayer's responsibility to inform the appraisal district of the taxpayer's current address.

When is the business personal property rendition deadline? 

Taxpayers are required to render information regarding their business personal property to appraisal districts annually, generally by April 15. Appraisal districts may extend the deadline until May 15 upon written request by the property owner, a common practice. This deadline can vary, however, depending on whether a Freeport exemption for the property is allowed.

Determining rendition deadlines can be complex and property owners should make sure to communicate with appraisal district personnel about deadlines early on in order to avoid penalties for late reporting. Penalties generally equal 10 percent of the total tax due.

Prepare for hearings. 

After filing a protest on time, property owners are scheduled for a formal hearing before the Administrative Review Board. Often the appraisal district will schedule an informal hearing with an appraiser prior to the formal hearing. Most formal and informal hearings take place between April and July of the tax year in question, and many protests are resolved during this process. Preparation is the key to success.

More deadlines: 

The review board will determine a property value and issue an "order determining protest." Document the date the order is received and follow up with the appraisal district if you do not receive appropriate documentation within a few weeks of the formal hearing date. A property owner has 60 days from receipt of the order to file suit in district court appealing the review board's results.

Taxing entities are required to mail tax bills by Oct. 1 or as soon thereafter as practicable. Taxes become delinquent if not paid before Feb. 1 of the year following the property valuation. That is, for the 2019 tax year, taxes are due on or before Jan. 31, 2020. An active protest or lawsuit does not excuse a property owner's obligation to pay taxes prior to the delinquency date, and failure to pay taxes in a timely manner forfeits the right to proceed with an appeal in court. If an owner prevails in its appeal, the overpayment will be refunded.

Best practices for appeals

Regardless of appeal status, communicate early and often with the appraisal district and provide requested documentation and information. Informal settlement conferences are good opportunities to get to know the appraiser assigned to the protest and to understand the assumptions supporting his or her analysis.

Be prepared with all required documentation including hearing notices, property-specific information and any appointment-of-agent forms. Consider further protecting appeal rights by filing an affidavit stating the taxpayer's position in advance of the formal hearing date. An affidavit on file protects the taxpayer in the event that they are unable to attend the hearing.

What if I miss my deadline?

Let's assume a taxpayer purchased a retail center for $2 million in December 2018. The appraiser valued the property at $3.5 million for 2019, but the owner believes the purchase price reflects market value. The taxpayer missed the May 15 protest deadline, however.

Fortunately, there is an additional, backstop remedy. Property owners may file a motion to correct the appraisal roll, provided that the assessor's value exceeds the correct appraised value by more than one-third. For our hypothetical retail center, the correct appraised value would need to be less than $2.625 million for the motion to succeed.

The motion to correct the appraisal roll can be filed through the date that the property taxes are due, which in this scenario would be Jan. 31, 2020. Like other protests, the review board's ruling on a motion to correct the appraisal roll may be appealed to district court.

Taxpayers should pay attention to the details of protest procedures and deadlines or hire the right team with the expertise and experience to do so. Otherwise, the owner may get burdened with an excessive appraisal due to missed deadlines or mismanaged internal procedures. Protecting appeal rights is essential to properly managing property tax expense.


Rachel Duck, CMI, is a senior property tax consultant at the Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC and Kathy Mendoza is a legal assistant at the firm. Popp Hutcheson devotes its practice to the representation of taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Learn best practices for meeting property tax deadlines and handling property tax appeals.
Apr
18

How Office Owners Can Help Lower Sky-High Property Tax Assessments

​The American Property Tax Counsel argues that if a property tax assessment is premised on a uniform per-square-foot value, rental rate or vacancy rate for all office properties in a metro area, the assessor is likely going to overlook distinguishing factors in submarkets that could benefit building owners.

Managing fixed expenses is the best way to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties, especially in a flat market. The largest continuing expense for most commercial properties is the property tax bill, and in a market with skyline-defining properties and headline-grabbing sales prices, tax assessors have multi-tenant office properties in the crosshairs.

Any reduction in tax burden can drastically improve an investment's profitability, competitiveness and tenant retention. As another assessment season begins across the Midwest, understanding tax assessors' common errors can equip property managers and owners with the tools necessary to review the accuracy and reasonableness of the assessments on their office properties and, when appropriate, challenge those assessments.

Know the relevant market

To an outsider, the office market can appear monolithic. To such people, rent, occupancy and other income characteristics of office properties are consistent throughout the market. But pulling data from the wrong market can lead assessors to an incorrect result.

For example, assessors may assume that Class A downtown office towers are the best-performing assets in the market, and value them accordingly. Contrary to this perception, though, Class A properties may not outperform all Class B or Class C properties, and downtown may not be the strongest office submarket in a certain metro area.

Nowhere is the distinction between office submarkets clearer than in the downtown-suburban divide. In many Midwestern markets, suburban office properties tend to be newer, have better occupancy, and in some cases, command higher rents than their downtown competition.

The factors influencing the relative performance of downtown and suburban office properties vary, but they include employees' desire to work closer to their homes, and comparatively low land prices, which allow office building construction with the larger floorplates many tenants prefer. Suburban office markets also typically are able to offer free parking, while paid parking — which is common in the central business district — increases occupancy costs for tenants and their employees. Downtown towers though may appeal to large law firms, accounting firms and banks seeking a prestigious address.

If an assessment is premised on a uniform per-square-foot value, rental rate or vacancy rate for all office properties in a metro area, the assessor is likely failing to consider distinguishing factors in submarkets. Finding those distinctions can benefit owners on either side of the downtown-suburban divide.

Don't blindly trust sales

Assessors are often too reliant on sales data. Although some properties may be valued by considering sales prices for comparable properties, office properties do not neatly lend themselves to such an analysis. Applying the recent sales price of a downtown office tower to all other office towers in the downtown area may seem reasonable on its face, but fails to recognize how buyers and sellers interact in the office market.

For many real estate types, an assessor can identify comparable sales and adjust those transactions to reflect differences between the comparable and subject properties. Unlike owner-occupied buildings, investment properties that are otherwise similar are not easily adjusted for real estate-related factors. This is because market participants do not settle on sales prices based on attributes of the real property, but on attributes of the income stream.

Buyers of multi-tenant office buildings are motivated by the durability of the income stream, reflecting either potential for growth or existing leases with creditworthy, in-place tenants. Knowing a target's income characteristics, buyers apply their own capitalization rate thresholds and back into the sales price. But that price necessarily reflects the particular income stream being purchased, which may have limited applicability to another property. This approach is opposite to the way many assessors believe sales prices are set.

This is not to say that sales of comparable properties are entirely irrelevant in valuing an office property for tax purposes. For example, because capitalization rates reflect the behavior of investors in the market, sales of properties that are comparable as investments can inform the selection of a capitalization rate in a particular analysis. But if an assessor has used a recent sale as the sole basis to set the assessments of the competitive set, whether their assessments truly reflect the market is questionable.

When income isn't income

As income-generating assets, office properties are most commonly valued using the income approach. But even though office rents are not as attributable to personal or intangible property as is, for example, a hotel's income, the rents paid by office tenants are not entirely attributable to the real estate. Simply capitalizing a building's existing income stream mistakenly assumes it is.

The market for office properties in many areas is extremely competitive, and nearly all leases in some markets reflect tenant incentives like improvement allowances. Even long-standing tenants expect such incentives when their leases are up for renewal, and tenants are accustomed to using those allowances to refresh their space. Landlords, in turn, collect marginally higher rent that amortizes those costs over the lease period. But the impact of above-market allowances must be removed from the lease rate in determining the market level of rent. An assessor cannot say that a lease is $15 per square foot if the landlord paid the tenant $5 per square foot upfront.

Assessors also often misunderstand reimbursement income. Triple-net leases are uncommon in the office market; instead, landlords build an assumed level of expenses into their base rent and if the expense exceeds that base-level in future years, the tenant reimburses the landlord for the excess. Some assessors mistakenly view reimbursement income as additional profit. But, as the word "reimbursement" suggests, landlords only collect reimbursement income when, and to the extent, expenses exceed the base amount. Assessors should be reminded that reimbursement income is not a profit center.

As the office market continues its slow expansion, assessors are eager to capitalize on the most visible parts of the city skyline. But by grounding the assessor in the economic realities of the office market, diligent owners and property managers can reduce fixed expenses, lower tenant occupancy costs and ultimately improve profitability.

Benjamin Blair is a partner in the Indianapolis office of international law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • The American Property Tax Counsel argues that if a property tax assessment is premised on a uniform per-square-foot value, rental rate or vacancy rate for all office properties in a metro area, the assessor is likely going to overlook distinguishing factors in submarkets that could benefit building owners.
Mar
28

Unfair Taxation? Governments Need to Fix the Right Problem

​Investors should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class, says attorney Kieran Jennings.

Recently, The New York Times published an article on property taxes imposed on retailers under the headline "As Big Retailers Seek to Cut Their Tax Bills, Towns Bear the Brunt." This and similar articles question the fairness of how retailers have reduced their tax bills by using sales of unoccupied stores as comparable transactions to establish the assessed value for an occupied store.

The local government has cried foul, and the article concentrates on the perceived end result―lost revenue for government coffers.

What is missing from the article is basic tax law, which holds that all taxpayers in a given class must be taxed uniformly. Thus, the series of bad decisions that led local government to overtax retailers made communities dependent on inflated revenue. The initial mistake many assessors made was to seize upon sales prices associated with leased retail stores without critically examining the transactions.

Investors, and taxpayers in general, should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class.

FUNDAMENTALS OF FAIRNESS

Most state constitutions specify that taxes must be uniformly assessed, which requires assessors to follow the same rules for all taxpayers within a class. At the most simplistic level, the rules of the game must be consistently applied to all and not changed to affect the outcome.

To understand how equally applied rules achieve fair taxation of property, bear in mind this fundamental truth: The assessor's goal is to measure the value of real estate only. Taxing entities then use that value to determine the tax. A lack of well-thought-out rules and procedures created the problem of non-uniform assessment.

Many states don't even have a clear definition of what they are trying to measure. States use terms such as "true value" or "true market value" without any further defining language. For most people, fair value simply means what a home would sell for in an open-market transaction. But commercial real estate is not that simple and requires clear definitions applied uniformly to all taxpayers.

Commercial property values are influenced by many factors unrelated to real estate. Consider how, under various circumstances, the same property might sell for wildly different values: An owner-occupied property will sell based on what the market will pay for the building once it is vacant, either for the new owner to occupy or as an investment for the buyer to lease-out at market terms.

The same property, were it leased at an above-market rental rate or to a highly credit-worthy tenant, functions much like a bond and will sell based on a market capitalization rate and for a greater price than the owner-occupied property.

Finally, the same property leased with long-term, below-market lease terms or a less credit-worthy tenant might sell for less than the owner-occupied price or the above-market-leased example. In each scenario, the same property sells for different amounts. Without a clear set of guidelines, establishing value based on sales price would be inconsistent even for a single property, much less an entire class.

Of the three scenarios, the only method that can be replicated consistently and applied to owners of both leased and owner-occupied real estate alike is that of the owner-occupied property. Owner-occupied interest is the unencumbered, fee-simple interest, which makes it the measuring stick common to all taxpayers. All other interests are influenced by non-real-estate factors such as lease terms or business value.

MORE CONFUSION

Adding to the confusion is the ever-changing commercial real estate sector, where market data is full of sales that include non-real-estate influences. The single-tenant market, for example, has evolved from almost exclusively retailer occupancy to include specialty uses and even nursing homes and hospitals.

The assessment goal should be to measure the real estate value alone, ensuring that all taxpayers are taxed with the same measuring stick, but confusion comes in when the sales alone don't indicate real estate value. Leased sales indicate the value of the real estate along with the tenant's credit-worthiness, the life of the lease and a host of other factors that can include enterprise zones and outside influences.

The court cases that are clarifying the methodology and the measuring stick appear to reduce assessments, when they are actually correcting the assessments and requiring assessors to value the same interests for all taxpayers. Defining terms and ensuring rule uniformity protects all taxpayers. There is no foul to be called and the losses affecting some local governments are the result of their own mistakes.

The cure is simple, but the short-term pain for community coffers is significant. States must establish clear definitions and guidelines around property rights so that assessors can value all real estate without encumbrances. Local governments cannot rely on a single taxpayer subset to carry the tax burden.

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Investors should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class, says attorney Kieran Jennings.

American Property Tax Counsel

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